Weekly Round-up: June 28, 2013

Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome to the Weekly Round-Up!

If you’ve got stories or links that you think ought to be shared for next week, you can email us at unidiversityblog@gmail.com, or tweet us @uni_di_versity.

Start off your weekend with Ikhide Ikheloa’s candid account of his life at the University of Mississippi. As the only black student in his class of no more than 25, Ikheola shares the nuances of his experience – from missing Nigerian beer, to black-on-black prejudice.

Race permeates almost every facet of life in South Africa, even filtering into dormitory assignments. Are universities a microcosm for wider societal tensions and barriers to racial integration in South Africa? Check out Eve Fairbanks’ depiction of race relations at the University of Free State.

The number of English majors is declining, as students are under pressure to choose degrees with more “occupational potential”. Verlyn Klinkenborg argues that studying humanities is still relevant and necessary. For him, a humanities degree is the gift of “clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature” that keeps on giving.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his crew often publicly dismiss the value of intellectual inquiry into social and public policy. Joseph Heath defends sociological and criminological contributions to policy, arguing that criminologists are hated because they call out nonsense with long-term trends and statistics.

Finally, to all those in sexy foreign affairs programs, consider reading Brandon Scott’s “Myths of Foreign Affairs.” Unfortunately, your semester abroad doesn’t make you a global citizen. And you may have to work a bit harder to land yourself a gig in an intelligence agency.

Have a lovely weekend. We’ll be back on Monday with more rad articles from our amazing team of writers!

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International students need international universities

As a veteran of two intercontinental exchanges and one semi-permanent move to Sweden to pursue my master’s degree, I’ve lived and breathed the international student experience. Skipping class, living in a foreign country, the international social life, pubs, clubs and travelling – you almost forget that suddenly you’re a student under the umbrella of a foreign university institution, and that a lot about your experience and life abroad is affected by that organisation.

Lately, I’ve witnessed young adults only a couple years younger than myself with no international experience getting thrown into the wilderness of coping, adapting and living the less glorified parts of  the international student life.

Your time on exchange can very well turn out to be the time during which you learn about exclusion, being the constant outsider, and having your identity turned upside down. You’re on your own for the first time in a foreign land, forced to make a life from scratch, and this is overwhelming. That’s without even touching on cultural and language barriers.

The thing most students don’t realize until they arrive is that a lot depends on the university and the culture of inclusion and support it can build for internationals. Unfortunately, it’s no secret that universities have difficulties integrating us in a meaningful way. Ignore the beautiful smiling students on their brochures; the isolation of internationals is widespread and unmistakable.

The struggle tends to be threefold: institutional, linguistic and cultural. How do you integrate a transient, diverse and temporary number of individuals into a university on a rolling basis?

First, universities need to realize that it is in their interest to invest in international students. Universities around the world are experiencing an increase in student mobility, whether through temporary exchange programs or more permanent students seeking their entire degree in a different country. This student mobility is an opportunity to bring in revenue and compensate, in part, for austerity policies targeting education. Universities must prepare themselves to hear and react to international student needs, and adjust regulations and institutional culture to remain competitive.

Sweden is an interesting case. For one thing, an astounding number of Swedes speak impeccable English. As an Anglophone in a world where English is such a widely-spoken language, you’d think this lead easy and swift integration into Swedish student life. Master’s level classes may very well be in English, but when it comes to student rights, all documentation in the public sector in Sweden – which includes universities – must be in Swedish. Student unions have independently decided to conduct meetings in English if there’s just one non-Swede there (and there almost always is). But, when working with the administration, translated documents are rare, if they exist at all, limiting international student involvement and representation.

The cultural element is trickier, but it’s not impossible to manage. Setting up an international information desk or club, however, doesn’t cut it. These are often young people leaving their home for an extended period of time for the first time without a support system. But, more and more, students travel, experience other cultures, and come to understand the sense of being an outsider. This can have an impact on cultural integration on campus.

From my years in the international student community, I realized that it’s a culture in itself, and it’s spreading with every exchange, international degree or internship, new group of friends, and – often – new job. More and more young people recognize and identify with an “international culture.” The spread of international experiences is expected to continue, and with it, I hope this international culture will, too.

As much as global interconnectivity and exchange is facilitated by globalization and other factors, there remain, for students studying abroad, shadows of isolation and exclusion. Young internationals under the wing of a new university deserve support from their host institution. There’s nothing to be done about some negative aspects of living away from home, but if trends continue, universities will have to face facts: they have a role to play in making life easier for international students.

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The glorified exploitation of unpaid internships

Broadcast intern in professional dress and running shoes runs to delivery SCOTUS decision to her boss

The 2013 Running of the Interns, via Buzzfeed.

A quick primer on unpaid internships:

  • Unpaid internships in Ontario are illegal, unless they’re sponsored through a post-secondary institution for credit.
  • Unpaid internships are not a guarantee of future employment, or greater earning potential.
  • Unpaid internships are a gendered issue, as women make up the vast majority of their ranks.
  • The highest profile example of unpaid internships right now is the Bell Canada  case (Note – link is to an autoplay video about the case).

This is an issue I have been concerned about for some time now. It became clear to me early on in political science (and the social sciences more broadly), it’s necessary to complete an internship to get ahead. I was comfortably and happily employed in my field in Ottawa, but all around me classmates were travelling to far-off locations to intern for some international organization. Not to be outdone, I left my job at the time to intern at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. It was an amazing experience, about which I reminisce constantly.

I don’t know if working at the Embassy gave me an edge in my law, grad school, and employment since, but it’s definitely a point of conversation in all my interviews. It’s glamorous!

I could never have interned in DC without first having worked a well-paying full-time job, which allowed me to save. At $1,000 a month for a room in a stranger’s house, DC was not cheap. Tack on travel, food, clothes, and modest entertainment (thank god their museums are free!), and it adds up.

When organizations like the United Nations offer internships to those enrolled in or going into graduate studies, but bar interns from applying for UN employment until six months after their internship has ended, you have to wonder – who are these smart, savvy people with money saved up to move to New York, Geneva, or Nairobi?

For law students, internships are a way of boosting your resume as you prepare to secure a seemingly-illusive summering position, not to mention articles. Fortunately for law students, universities offer credits for such undertakings. (I just received approval for my own student-proposed law internship).

Internships are a great opportunity for hands-on experience. However, more and more they are becoming all there is to do while employment opportunities dwindle, especially for young people, in some of the aforementioned fields. With no guarantee of pay-off for this alleged “paying of dues”, I have to ask: why are we putting up with this?

The internship model hurts those who are already marginalized when it comes to entry into highly-coveted professions like law. For those who can’t get the few jobs on offer because of barriers caused by disability, family commitments, age, race, or language, internships are sold as an opportunity to gain experience. The unfortunate reality is that internships are not a competitive edge, and actually set those already behind the pack further behind, financially speaking.

Some argue that internships allow small organizations to hire where they otherwise couldn’t raise the funds. But working for nothing for a cause you support has another name: volunteering. If you’re obligated to work for someone without being remunerated, that’s exploitation. Meanwhile, those at the top are staying put, and the number of entry-level positions is stagnating.

It’s a tough position to be in: cash-strapped, in debt, in need of references, in need of law-related credentials. Who are we as students to stand up to employers and say enough is enough?

The truth is we must say something. Through organizations like the Canadian Intern Association, through our student unions, through our elected officials, the campaign to end unpaid internships needs to get under way.

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Communicating for social change

Social change comes, not simply through personal change, but also through persuasion. An important part of influencing the world around oneself is to communicate ideas and to influence the people who surround us. Feminism, Marxism, and the enlightenment era values of equality that drove the civil and gay rights movements – those ideas gave us all the tools and the frameworks to understand our lives and our social context in new and revolutionary ways.

However, with the example of feminism, it was not enough for the idea that women are equal to men to be sparked in one mind. No, that is not enough to create a world-changing social movement. That idea had to be born in the minds of many, spoken by the mouths of many, and heard, challenged, and accepted by answering minds before a philosophy and a movement could be born.

Communication is an important thing.

A disabled individual, like me, might change their social environment by explaining the difficulties that they encounter to key individuals around them: teachers, classmates, family, and friends. While one might not always find a receptive mind, most people, when approached respectfully, will do their best to accommodate. In all but the most unreceptive environments, one can use this approach to create an community of support.

In extreme contrast, one might talk solely to others encountering the same difficulties, about how those difficulties are not accommodated, about how the needs of the group are unmet, without bringing others into the conversation – or while outright disregarding the opinions of those outside the group. Since they do not share in our difficulties, the assumption might be, they are obviously ill-equipped to discuss the subject and therefore have nothing of import to say.

Much as existing power-structures limit the participation of marginalized groups in mainstream social dialogue, to the detriment of our social progress, the same voices privileged in the mainstream are occasionally heavily delegitimized where the language of social justice reigns. This has a certain well-they-started-it playground logic, but it is largely counter-productive and has many problematic elements, such as the creation of a social hierarchy where status is linked to the degree of disenfranchisement in the dominant culture. This may further discourage communication with the dominant dialogue by demonizing it, rather than engaging with it.

When we arbitrarily limit who can have a voice and who can participate in a dialogue, then we simultaneously limit the scope of the effect we can have on society with our discourse. We limit the power of our words. Assuming that a white, cisgendered man can neither understand privilege nor communicate meaningfully on how privilege affects everyone throughout society is demeaning to that individual’s status as a rational being, but it also cripples communication. The dialogue of social change becomes insular, a one-sided conversation with no purpose, held solely to convince ourselves of the guilt of those who oppose us and our own personal righteousness.

We are speaking, but there is no one there to listen.

Just because a person is currently ignorant of the tools and frameworks of ideas like feminism, does not mean that they are unreceptive to those ideas or that they can never come to understand them. That is why excluding men from discussions of feminism, why excluding heterosexuals and the cisgendered from discussions of sexuality and gender, why excluding those who are currently abled and healthy from discussions of disability and mental illness is so problematic: because they could be great allies in the search for an equal society, and because they need to be part of this conversation too.

Young men need the tools of feminism just as young women do: they need to understand how patriarchal gender norms limit their self-expression and encourage damaging behaviour. Straight men and women need the encouragement to accept the full range of sexuality, desires, and bodies that is discussed in queer studies. White individuals need to understand the full impact of institutional racism and how it permeates the lives of everyone in our society, so that we may all enter into a meaningful dialogue about race, instead of the silent war of hidden hostilities in which we often find ourselves.

All affected parties must be at the table before a discussion can be had and an agreement reached.

We live in a divided time. In North America, politics are increasingly polarized, with both “sides” watching each other mistrustfully over a middle-ground that has been burned and razed. This is not a time to cut off communication, but we have become more and more reluctant to engage with those who disagree or who simply have not previously been receptive.

So do not structure the dialogue of social change to exclude the privileged. Structure it to teach them, to include them, to engage them. Bring them into the conversation. Certainly, we need not have these discussions with every Tom, Dick, Sally, and Thoth the Enlightened that crosses our path – heaven knows I wouldn’t have the energy. But when you do find yourself in such a conversation, please do not say, “You’re a part of (privileged class), so you wouldn’t understand.”

That’s not starting a conversation, that’s ending it.

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Weekly Round-up: June 21, 2013

Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome to the Weekly Round-Up!

If you’ve got stories or links that you think ought to be shared for next week, you can email us at unidiversityblog@gmail.com, or tweet us @uni_di_versity.

Start off your Friday with most graduates’ favorite moment: commencement (graduation, convocation — whatever flavor you prefer). The NY Times compiled 5 speeches, ranging from Stephen Colbert to Melinda Gates. And yes, we definitely noticed that the speakers selected were a bunch of white people.

Nalanda University, located in Northern India, was around long before Oxford and Cambridge. Now, it’s being rebuilt in Rajgir. It’s chancellor: Amartya Sen. Undoubtedly, Nalanda is an educational institution worth keeping an eye on.

On a slightly less cheery note, ever wonder how your major fares in terms of employability (read: unemployability)? Well, Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce has some insights. Unemployment rates are “relatively” low for recent grads in: in education, engineering, health and the sciences. You can check out the rest – we’d rather not break the “bad news”.

Do you know what a MOOC is? “Massive open online courses”– like Coursera– are rising in popularity exponentially. State universities in the US recently enrolled over a million students in Coursera.  Are MOOCs the answer to rising tuition, poor employment rates among graduates, and outdated learning methods? The jury is out, but it looks like MOOCs are here to stay.

Finally, something to work on thanks to Eli Steffen, who gives you 10 ways to challenge your cis-gender privilege so you can stop being a ‘pronoun cissy’.

And, that’s a wrap. Enjoy your weekend. Check out Coursera. We’ll be back on Monday with more love from uni(di)versity!

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I have so many thoughts: Adult ADHD in university

I graduated two days ago. After five years of undergraduate study in what feels like a thousand different programs (let’s be honest, it was four), the university that I moved across country to attend approved my request to graduate and gave me a diploma. It’s got a shiny seal on it, and my full name, and proclaims to the world that I put in the time and effort to receive a BA in archaeology. As I crossed the stage, feeling like a confused and ungainly deer in headlights, the Chancellor shook my hand, congratulated me on convocation, and asked “What’s next?!”

I don’t know this man. I know he asked because he felt he had to say something to each and every student, and I appreciate his feigned concern for my future plans. But I had no answer for him beyond an awkward laugh and “We’ll see!”

My honest answer might have been “Sandwiches!” I was just trying to get across the stage without my heels falling off. At that moment, getting back to my seat in one piece was “what’s next.”

The thing is, I’ve never known what’s next in terms of the so-called Big Picture. At one point during the Chancellor’s address, he said “It is time to live life on purpose – not by accident, but on purpose.” I am really, really, really bad at this. I have been for as long as I can remember. It’s not my fault, but it is part of who I am. Learning to accept that has been one of the most valuable lessons I have worked through in university.

I have ADHD. I wasn’t diagnosed until the summer before my last year of university, at which point I was tired of giving up on things and losing interest in everything that I thought I enjoyed, and growing increasingly anxious about living in a world that wants everyone to have a plan and follow through on it.

I’m lucky. All my life I have been one of the “smart” kids. I finished my schoolwork so quickly and correctly that I could just move on to whatever else I wanted. I had a 3.8 GPA when I moved to Calgary for my fourth year of university, even though I’d only ever done the minimum courses in my specified major each year and had changed my major annually.

But I couldn’t keep it up. I had reached the point where my answer to an innocent (but condescending) “What are you going to do with your degree?” or the similarly awful “Are there actually any jobs in that?” was a disgusted look and a request that the questioner go to hell. It wasn’t a real answer, but I didn’t have anything better.

“I don’t know; I haven’t looked into it. I’m just getting this degree so that I have a degree. I don’t care what it’s in. This was interesting for 3 classes and I’m sick of changing my mind and being in school forever.” That was my honest answer, but it wasn’t usually what people wanted to hear.

I didn’t like admitting it, either. I didn’t like thinking that I’d forever be in this cycle of hyper-focusing on one facet of education and then tiring after two weeks and doing it over and over again. I was realizing that diving head-first with limbs flailing into an academic pursuit wasn’t going to get me anywhere. First, I needed to learn how to swim back to shore – or, at the very least, tread water.

For a while, I was in kind of rough shape. I saw career counsellors who helped me decide on zero career paths; instead, my sessions turned into Coping with Anxiety and Insomnia 101. When my counsellor had to move and I was reassigned to another woman, she interrupted my ramblings to ask if I’d ever been tested for ADHD. After my initial raised-eyebrow reaction at her interrupting me to ask if I had attention issues, I realized that she might actually have a point.

My counsellor directed me to the DRC – which I automatically thought meant the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but quickly learned was the Disability Resource Centre. I went through the necessary steps (and there are so many steps!) of having a psychoeducational assessment. The verdict was that I have Combined Type ADHD, which (for me) means that I can be loud; I have difficulty staying on task, remembering what I’m doing, and maintaining focus and goals; I fidget; I get frustrated and might throw a tantrum; and I can’t sit through most movies.

I don’t bounce off the walls, I don’t scream for unknown reasons, and I do have manners; these are the outdated and narrow minded views of ADHD which my parents tend to harbour, which is one reason why I was never tested and diagnosed as a child. I also have opted not to seek treatment through drugs. For many people drugs are the right choice, but given my mild ADHD and a combination of other factors, they’re not for me.

My counsellors and doctors and I have worked out a semi-successful system of behavioural therapy to deal with my overactive mind, but I fail sometimes. That is okay. It is okay to make mistakes. I am okay.

Along with the diagnosis of ADHD, I got some perks from the DRC. The people working there are absolutely wonderful. They actually take time to get to know you and help you do your absolute best with the tools that you have. I was allowed to have a calculator for all of my math- related tests, I got to write my exams in my own private room where I could walk around and talk to myself, I was given breaks during my exams and tests, and I had a vaguely worded letter for my profs that gave me an excuse to briefly leave class when I just couldn’t sit there anymore. And it really helped. My test scores were better, my professors were more understanding, and my anxiety lessened.

Now, having graduated, I’m not in that environment anymore. I don’t have a professor giving me something to work toward every month, be it a test or a paper or a class presentation. But I still have ADHD.

I still don’t know what I am going to do with my life. I don’t even know what I’m going to do this afternoon.  I still go to the washroom to pee, get there and see an errant bobby pin which reminds me that I had laundry to transfer to the dryer, get halfway to the dryer and see the fridge which is short on margarine, then go to the grocery store with a full bladder and damp clothing that will just have to wait to be dry until my boyfriend gets home. I’ll inevitably come home without the margarine, too.  I still get caught up in the thrill of watching an episode of “Say Yes to the Dress” while sewing four different projects and convincing myself that opening a bridal boutique is a viable career option. And I’ll teach people how to bake while they’re there … and play the ukulele … and we can colour!

Is there such a thing as a bridal boutique daycare? Because that, my friends, is my freakin’ niche.

I went to university because it’s what other people told me to do, because I was smart. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know who I was or what plans I had. I was there to help myself figure out who I am, to learn how to do whatever it was that I decided I wanted to do, and to get a degree mostly just to say that I could do it.

I don’t regret my five years of university, but I do wish that I’d found ways to turn it into a tool to prepare me for life outside of school. Instead, I let it just be something I was doing, one test at a time, until it was over. I know I’m not alone in experiencing university that way. There are lots of reasons why recent graduates in today’s economy have no idea where to work and are grateful for any job they can land; I’m sure one of the reasons is that universities make it hard to navigate the full range of job options that are available.

People with ADHD are expected to work to fit into society. I think that it’s something that society needs to recognize doesn’t fit, and that not-fitting is okay. My years at school gave me wonderful experiences, the greatest friends, undying support from my family, and two pieces of paper. One is a diploma that says I know some theory of digging and past cultures. The other is a psychologist’s report that says I have ADHD. I want the latter to be seen as an asset too. Drowning in the “Post-Grad Real World” isn’t fun.

Feeling like nobody will toss you a rope because they don’t trust you to hold on long enough is even less fun.

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Finding a place for students with invisible disabilities

More than 4 million Canadians are disabled; about half of those people live with invisible disabilities.

The term invisible disability is an umbrella term which encompasses all disabilities that affect the ability of a person to live their life, but show no physical or visible sign.  Among the conditions that are classified as invisible disabilities are chronic pain, dyslexia, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Most universities have centres that offer support and services to disabled students, and the University of Ottawa is no exception. Both the Student Academic Success Services (SASS) and the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD) operate on campus and provide services to students with disabilities.  While I did not make use of these services during my undergrad, the CSD has some pretty fantastic resources and programs, especially if you’re looking to expand your understanding of disability.

SASS assists students based on their needs, which are determined through a formal process that requires medical notes detailing the nature and limitations of the disability and asks for recommendations for accommodation.  Programs like this one are often centered on physical disabilities, leaving students who have invisible disabilities alienated.  In the case of mental health issues, it is not always possible to provide a diagnosis and evaluation of a student’s limitations and needs, because they may fluctuate constantly and can be difficult to diagnose.

The fact that many students who have invisible disabilities conceal their disabilities in order to pass as a non-disabled student contributes to their alienation in post-secondary institutions.  When you consider the intense pressures and expectations placed on university students to complete the requisite amount of work, to maintain good grades, to cultivate a social life, to find a partner and so on, be sure to think of the additional barriers placed on students with invisible disabilities as well.

Another major issue facing students who have invisible disabilities is the perception that their disability is not legitimate or real.  The expectations and increased stress levels placed on students creates a mentality that you have to be strong enough, smart enough, and capable enough to succeed in university.  This mentality makes it difficult to ask for assistance, especially when that assistance comes in the form of “extra help” or “special attention” and can leave you with the feeling that you are somehow inferior to students who can succeed without assistance.  We need a solution that can break down accessibility barriers without singling out students with disabilities as less capable or somehow separate from their peers.

During my undergrad degree, one of the ways my anxiety and depression affected my classroom experience was through course evaluation structures.  Both anxiety attacks and depressive episodes can make it difficult to attend classes, and even when I was able to do readings, borrow lecture notes and maintain my grades, the loss of up to 20 per cent of my final grade for class participation took its toll on my marks.

The stress of final exams can lead to increased stress levels and panic attacks for some students, and the inability to attend class can cause students who would otherwise be succeeding to get lower grades, fail courses and, in some cases, drop out of school entirely.

Introducing alternative or more flexible course evaluation structures is one way to accommodate students with invisible disabilities without singling them out as special or less capable as their peers.  A flexible course evaluation structure might entail a professor providing two or three slightly different options for evaluation.  For example, the professor might provide an option where the exam grade is worth less with an additional assignment, or where participation is worth less and a major paper is worth more.

There are many ways that invisible disabilities can add stress, barriers and complications to the lives of students living with them. While there has been an increase in discussion about disabilities on campuses, there needs to be a more active discourse about invisible disabilities and how they affect the learning experiences and lives of students.

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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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New politics, old tensions: the invisibility of bisexual identities in research

I was at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria from June 5-10, attending “Multimedia Design for Research Creation, Community Engagement, and Knowledge Mobilization,” taught by Aimée Morrison.

I love both the course and the set-up of the DHSI as a whole. I love the diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities, disciplines and interests in my class. I love the professor, and the collaborative approach to learning. There’s a lot to love.

Refreshingly, there also seems to be an undercurrent of privilege-aware, feminist thought, at least in the course that I’m attending. We’ve talked about a variety of feminist issues, including the ethical treatment of marginalized research collaborators, and some of my classmates are vocal advocates for challenging the privileging of academic knowledge over other forms of knowledge. It’s been a very engaging, exciting week so far.

One reason that there is a different “feel” to this event, even though it is still clearly academic, is that none of us will receive credit for the work, the professors are volunteering their time, and the courses have a feeling of flattened hierarchy – as Aimée put it, “autodidactic communalism.” This is learning for the love of learning, sharing skills for the love of the skills and of the sharing, and professional development growing out of a passion for this new and developing interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Basically – DHSI: I would recommend it.

While there, I had an interesting conversation with one of my classmates, Elise Chenier, and it highlighted one of the struggles that the bisexual community faces in being recognized and legitimized. This struggle is found in the tendency of many academic scholars to assume or read homosexuality into historical accounts of non-heterosexual behaviour, either missing or glossing over the potential for bisexuality.

Elise has worked with A LOT: Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony, and is currently working on research regarding mixed-ethnicity marriages between Asian men and white women in the 1950s and 60s.

She described the genesis of this project as being found in a story that she heard during her research for A LOT. The story was of a woman who was living with a Chinese man, whose male partner and butch lover had an altercation. This made my bi activist ears perk up, since this seemed like a situation that might be described as bisexual. I wondered if other women were in similar situations and asked if there were any mentions of bisexual women and their stories in her work.

It turns out, there are not.

None of the women self-identified as bisexual, and I nodded and said that it can be dangerous or difficult for bisexual women to come out in lesbian communities, especially if those communities are critical to their social support networks. Elise felt that this was inserting contemporary politics into a historical moment where they were not an issue. Bisexuality was simply not recognized as an identity category in the same way that it is now: none of the women self-identified as bisexual, and that’s that.

In this instance I think that Elise has a point about reading contemporary politics into historical moments where they don’t apply, where the women being interviewed are describing experiences that happened before the gay rights movement, before we had a cultural understanding of heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality as they exist in the cultural consciousness now.

And yet, is it possible that none of the women self-identified as bisexual not only because they may not have had the language at the time, but also because they did not see space for a bisexual identity in the current research?

So often we assume that these “contemporary political issues” are still not relevant. The issue of bisexuality is regularly ignored or erased, subsumed into the more easily understood gay or lesbian movements. I’d like to push a little bit on the assumption that bisexuality doesn’t need to be actively pursued or acknowledged by scholars engaging with queer histories.

As Elise mentioned in our conversation, it is possible that assumptions underpinning the formation of questions might lead to possible bisexual identifications being overlooked, or not given space for acknowledgment. Questions that imply an expected answer, or interpretations that are coloured by assumptions or misconceptions happen easily, and often without any malicious intent. But they are still problematic, and they still make it incredibly difficult for bisexuals to see themselves situated in a history that seems entirely monosexual, where even queer histories are often written as gay and lesbian histories.

Bisexual activists like Brenda Howard have, from the very beginning, been instrumental in the Pride movement that now so often ignores or erases us. Despite these early activists – Howard was openly bisexual and also the founder of pride parades as we know them today – bisexuality has been and often still is viewed as “dangerous and contrary to gay liberation” (Rust[1]).

These beliefs can be tricky, sneaking into our interpretations of historical figures and making it hard to recognize bisexuality in instances where it may exist. Although I do not believe that we can ever tell a person who claims one identity (gay or straight, for instance) that they are bisexual because of their behaviours, which may be influenced by all kinds of factors, I do believe that we should not assign a label (gay or straight, for instance!) when a person’s behaviours may indicate a bisexual, pansexual or fluid orientation and when they have not claimed that label for themselves.

We should be careful not to coercively assign bisexual labels in our efforts for visibility, but we should make every effort to carve out space for bisexual readings of historical events and people. It should be possible to encounter a bisexual history, because it is absolutely true that this bisexual history exists. We just have to stop pushing everyone to one side or the other of the gay/straight binary.

This is one reason why the bisexual pride movement, which did not exist so visibly in previous decades, is so important. We have Faith Cheltenham now, for instance, taking up the work of early bisexual activists like Brenda Howard. There is a tension between bisexual women and some lesbians who view us, at best, as simply incomprehensible. This tension is not new, and it will not go away unless we continue to confront and explore the ways in which bisexual history and identity is overlooked and erased.

I am optimistic about this endeavour. Elise and I had a fantastic conversation about bisexual invisibility, identity politics, Jack Halberstam, trans* invisibility within the historical lesbian movement, internalized biphobia and research ethics. This kind of collaboration can only lead to better understanding and more visibility. At least, that’s my hope. When I look at rates of suicidality and mental health concerns among bisexual individuals (the topic of my next post), I know that something has to change. Maybe this is part of that change. Fingers crossed!

[1] Rust, Paula C. “Neutralizing the Political Threat of the Marginal Woman: Lesbians’ Beliefs about Bisexual Women.” The Journal of Sex Research , Vol. 30, No. 3 (Aug., 1993), pp. 214-228

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Weekly Round-Up: June 14, 2013

Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome to the Weekly Round-Up!

If you’ve got stories or links that you think ought to be shared for next week, you can email us at unidiversityblog@gmail.com, or tweet us @uni_di_versity.

Start your weekend off right with an unexpected chart about Sweden: despite post-secondary education being free there, average student debt in Sweden is almost as high as it is in the US. But despite the high debt load, Swedish students are still getting a head-start on starting adult life independent of their parents. Go read the article – Sweden, as usual, will blow your mind.

Centre Forum isn’t mincing words in its report on universities: apparently, in the UK, getting into postgraduate education is like getting membership in an exclusive golf club. A wildly insufficient student loan structure means that postgraduate degrees end up limited to those students who can afford to pay fees up front.

As Amy noted in her post this week, overhead costs are pushing some universities to increase the amount of online education on offer. On the one hand, this may help make education more accessible; on the other hand, putting more courses online could end up shrinking and homogenizing the academic community.

Here’s an article that will make you feel great, then ragey, then pretty good again. The communications director for the company that provides a standardized application to over 400 US schools announced a new initiative to reduce discrimination against undocumented university applicants. Except that the policy isn’t happening, and the communications director who made the announcement isn’t actually the communications director. But it’s still awesome? (It’s complicated, just go read it.)

Lastly, I am a total podcast fiend. I listen to at least 1-2 hours of podcasts every day, so when I tell you that this is one of the best episodes of any podcast I have ever heard, I promise you can trust me. “This American Life” sent reporters into a Chicago high school for five months, and tell the story of how the students, teachers, and administration cope with gun violence, gangs, and trying to teach kids when there just aren’t enough resources to go around.

That’s it for this week! Enjoy your weekend, and we’ll see y’all back on Monday!


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