Category Archives: Kelci Wilford

Learning “global” history

I really like history. I have weird obsessions with certain eras, but I also just generally love historical fiction and have enjoyed nearly all of the history classes I’ve taken in university. I am, you might say, a history buff. And yet, in the grand scheme of things, I know nothing about history.

Growing up white in Canada, my education focused on the history of my own country, which makes sense (although according to that education, Canadian history started in 1534 and was the story of white people from that point on). But we learned about other countries too: I have a smattering of American history, and I’m a big fan of European history. But that’s it. The rest of the world, entire continents, were only mentioned in passing, if at all. To me, a student who was passionate and eager to learn everything I could about history, I was told that the Western* world was all I could get.

Last year I took a history class that was supposed to be a broad survey course – no time period or geographical area specified. I was particularly excited because my professor made it clear from the very first class that he would be taking a global approach to history, and that the importance of that approach was the most significant thing he could teach us.

I wasn’t very impressed with the actual results. My prof occasionally would point out how “globally” he was teaching us – usually when we started talking about parts of the world that were not Europe – but it was almost invariably when we started learning about how those other parts of the world were conquered and colonized by white people. In a way, he did succeed in getting me to look at history more globally, but ironically it was because every time he started talking about it, I started thinking about how what he was teaching wasn’t very global at all.

At the same time, I was taking another history class that focused entirely on very specific aspects of African history. The professor in that class talked about colonialism as well, but in a completely different way. Whereas in my world history class, non-Western societies were mentioned occasionally to illustrate how they fit into the Western world, my African history class occasionally mentioned Western societies to illustrate how they impacted certain parts of the rest of the world. The history of imperialism means that there’s no good way to avoid discussing Western cultures altogether, but it seemed that the best way to get out of a Eurocentric mindset was to avoid the “global” mindset.

Eurocentrism has become so ingrained in the way we learn history that we can convince ourselves that a Westernized historical narrative is actually a global one. But when we look at the world through that lens, we are not only being academically lazy, but we are erasing, belittling, and damaging  the myriad of societies and peoples and viewpoints that are currently left out of our history books. Without hearing those voices, we really can’t say we know anything about history. The only thing to do, then, is to start really listening to them.

*a problematic and imprecise term that I could write whole essays on but I’m using here for the sake of convenience

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Four myths about disability accommodation

As difficult as it can be to go to school while dealing with illnesses and disabilities, there is usually at least some degree of institutionalized support. Most universities have something along the lines of what’s known at my school as Disability Services for Students (DSS) – an administrative department tasked with arranging advocacy and academic accommodations for students with disabilities. This includes things like alternate exam writing, peer note-takers, alternately formatted textbooks, or assistive technology, to name just a few.

DSS is a godsend for me and a lot of other students like me (or not like me, because DSS deals with a whole range of disabilities: physical or mental, visible or not). But the one thing that the fantastic people in that office can’t do is eliminate stigma. Talking about academic accommodations is often taboo, there are misconceptions about what they are and who they’re available to, and students with disabilities often internalize stereotypes and then don’t get the help they need. So let’s break this down:

1. Accommodations are not cheating.

In order to get an accommodation for a disability or illness, a doctor generally has to sign off on it. There are hoops to jump through that aren’t worth trying to fake your way into the system, even if you were willing to deal with the stigma, judgement, and discrimination that come along with a diagnosis. Moreover, accommodations do not mean being able to get through a class without learning or doing as much as everybody else. It means doing things differently, or maybe not as quickly, but it’s not a free pass.

2. Accommodations aren’t there to bump you up to average.

I think a lot people imagine Disability Services as being for a hypothetical disabled student struggling to pass without accommodations, but accommodations bump their grades up enough that they can just get by. While that is certainly true for some people, the point of accommodations is actually to mimic (as closely as possible) what school would be like if that student didn’t have a disability, rather than get them passing or more average grades. The difference in grades between not having accommodations and having them could be an F to a D, or it could be an A to an A+, or an F to an A+, or anything else. It could also result in getting the same grades, but at a reduced cost to mental or physical health. Think of accommodations as trying to achieve equality of opportunity, not equality of results.

3. You don’t know what accommodations someone needs.

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes; just because you think someone doesn’t need help with something doesn’t mean that they’re wrong to use accommodations. It is seriously none of your business, and you don’t get to know what someone’s diagnosis is in order to judge whether or not they’re worthy of help. In fact, my experience has been that not even professors get to know a student’s diagnosis: everything is confidential except for what professors need to know to provide the accommodations required.

4. Accommodations don’t make you weak.

Even though the option is given to us by experts and bureaucracy who affirm that they’re necessary and useful, it’s often still up to the student to decide if and when to actually use accommodations. Sometimes they’re not necessary all the time, and of course that’s fine. But there is no shame in having to use them sometimes, or even all the time.

As one of my professors told me, there is no prize at the end of your degree for having gotten through it without accommodations. The trope of “overcoming” a disability by sheer force of will is stupid and hurtful and doesn’t make any sense. If you really want to become a “success story” despite your “adversity,” do it by using all the tools at your disposal, including academic accommodations, to kick as much ass as possible.

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Studying through mental illness

My academic career is not what I expected it to be. As a student with disabilities and mental illnesses that have, in many ways, come to define my experiences as a student, I am now a far cry from the “normal” kid who started university back in day. Along the way, my personal identity has been forced to adapt and shift dramatically. I’ve struggled (and continue to struggle) to define what it is to be smart, what it is to be responsible, what it is to be able or disabled, what it is to call oneself a student.

In some ways, a university is the ideal place to get diagnosed with mental illnesses and disabilities. Lots of post-secondary institutions have support structures in place that, in theory at least, make professional help and advocacy as accessible as possible. At the same time, though, the structure and bureaucracy can be hellish, and it’s hard to express how damaging the attitudes of some people can be. Stigma surrounding mental illness is a major problem in all aspects of society, and universities are not immune to it. In fact, in some ways it might be worse: broadly speaking, academia values rationality and personal merit, and those aren’t always compatible with, say, “I don’t know why I’m so afraid to go to class but I am” or “I am literally not capable of staying on task right now.”

It gets more complicated, because rationality and personal merit are things that I deeply value as well. It is a daily challenge to reconcile my belief that I am smart and work hard to get what I want with the reality that sometimes I need extra help. Being mentally ill also doesn’t shield you from societal attitudes about mental illness. Those attitudes make it all too easy to hate having “Disabled Student” as part of your identity, or to develop an internal litany of “you’re lazy, you’re stupid, you don’t belong here.”

“You don’t belong here.” That’s the worst, one, I think, because it breaks my heart to think of all the students who don’t get the help they need and so drop out, thinking it was a personal failure on their part. That is a huge waste; the people I know who have been in that situation have huge potential to succeed, given the right support.

As it turns out, I don’t need to be told that I should be trying harder or should have been more responsible when I ask for help. I’ve already had those thoughts myself, thanks, and in the past I’ve beaten myself up about them so much that I’ve stopped myself from getting the help I need. But I’m starting to figure out that I can contain multitudes: I am smart, and I have mental illnesses. I am a hard worker, and I need extra help sometimes. I am a really good student, and I am a student with disabilities. These are not contradictions, and we are all better served when they’re not treated as such.

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