Posted in Autistic Identity, higher education, intersectionality

Practically Theoretical, Theoretically Practical: Ableism in Higher Education

Lydia X. Z. Brown , also known as Autistic Hoya, tweeted this recently: “It is absolutely, indisputably a privilege to get to higher education.  But for the marginalized who do get there, it’s so intensely violent.”

I retweeted and added to it that when I was at public university, this was incredibly true.  In Catholic circles, however, which are still every bit as racist, sexist, ableist, classist (etc.), they are at least, by and large, open to learning they are being ableist, racist, sexist, classist (etc.) and learning from that.  There are exceptions, such as the ones who think our current Pope is not actually our Pope due to a complicated story that basically consists of saying “I hate Vatican II and you all suck.”

I’d like to tell you it’s more complicated than hating one council, but it isn’t really.

For those who don’t know, this is the council where we stopped being so “out of the world” and talked more to people in the world (ie. not Catholic) and stopped doing a bunch of racist, ableist, sexist, and classist stuff (yes, we still do those things, but we try not to now).

Let’s just say I don’t have a lot of patience for that group.

HOWEVER, most Catholics I’ve worked with in academia are not that group.  Instead, Catholic academia is an environment that is less like the shark tank of the public academe and more like a family that consists of a whole lot of weird uncles and aunts who do stuff you don’t like, but you put up with them anyway because after all, they’re family.  A few people who hate Vatican II can typically be offset by a bunch of hippie-type Catholics so, by and large, you all manage together.

In other words, it’s not perfect, but no family is, right?

Anyway, this is my long way of going around to reintroduce the blog I wrote called “Practically Theoretical” about why I struggled (and still do) in Academia.  It’s got more editing than usual since it was an early blog piece and I’ve learned a lot more since then, but here it is!

Temple Grandin identifies three kinds of Autistic people. There are those who think in pictures, like her, who hold pictures in their head of everything they’ve ever seen or experienced. She talks about thinking of, say, cat, and she visualizes all cats she’s known. Another kind is the puzzle mind, the type of person who can solve puzzles with great facility.

My husband falls under this category. I’m in the third category: the wordsmiths. Some of us are writers and actors; we use words to explain ourselves. But like our Autistic brothers and sisters with other ways of thinking, we think outside the box and are creative problem-solvers. It may surprise you to know that creative problem-solving is not actually all that welcomed most places.

I know now that some of us, even when we’re puzzlers or word-types may think in words, or pictures, or both.  My husband and I do not think in pictures at all, as in, our brains do not make pictures.  For more on thinking in words, check out this blog:

Anyway, what follows is an exploration of my difficulties in higher education, which I had no idea were attributable to my undiagnosed Autism.

Mixed Signals: When Creativity Isn’t Welcomed

In law school, I ran into trouble with this in my legal writing classes in the first year. My teacher was a former English teacher and very good at “playing the game” of fitting in. The future lawyers who also were into beer pong and sports loved her. I didn’t understand them and I certainly didn’t understand her. I got poor grades on my work which seemed odd since my writing was much stronger than that of my colleagues. A lawyer friend that I knew told me not to worry about that; that, in her experience, those who did well in the legal writing courses tended to do poorly in the real world. She, herself, had done poorly, but judges would lift huge passages from her drafting, and judicial plagiarism is actually considered an honor in legal circles.

But this mismatch also thwarted me at oral advocacy work. I remember in particular finding an argument that my teacher didn’t find herself, and she’d thwart me including it at every opportunity. In looking back, I realized the problem with coming up with an argument that she didn’t anticipate meant that she wouldn’t have prepared the judges for it. They seemed interested in my line of reasoning, but she was making faces and shaking her head at me from behind them, so I let it go. It turned out that those who won the competition were the type who could play the game and gave the answers she wanted them to give. Given my background in writing and acting, doing poorly didn’t make sense to me at the time, but when I scored that A in Trial Advocacy class later, in a class taught by a former military lawyer who was also a strong big-family Catholic dad, I knew it wasn’t me. It seemed some people were open to creativity, and others were not. At the time, however, I had no idea that I was missing something.

When I transferred law schools, however, my unusual way of thinking was welcomed by a practicing real estate attorney whose priest brother also taught me in a course on theological foundations of law, and the Catholic attorney from Legal Aid in Poverty Law courses. I even scored the Dean’s Award, or, the top grade in the class, from the professor who led Jurisprudence, which is a legal philosophy course and quite difficult. These were theoretical law courses with practical implications that didn’t involve making friends; I could strongly advocate for pretend clients who needed my help or draft strong letters to businesspeople with a friendly touch that showed my human side. These things were valued by Catholic attorneys who wove their faith into their practice. Unfortunately, I graduated law school in the worst job market for attorneys in recent years, just at the time of the government bailouts and financial scandals.

Modern Academia: Reading People, Not Research, is the Most Important Skill

When I realized that popularity was necessary for most legal jobs and since there were few legal jobs to have anyway, I switched to library school. School and law librarians are paid well and work fewer nights and weekends, so it was a sensible move. Beyond that, I loved books and reading. I shone in my online library studies as a unique person who wanted to tease out the theoretical and did so well that one of the professors recruited me for the Ph.D. program. At the time I joined the Ph.D. program, they were giving out free tuition plus generous research stipends, so it would have been silly to turn them down, even though my heart wanted me to go to a large Catholic university, where I would be given a 50% tuition waiver and would focus on education, rather than library and information science. But my advisor pointed out how library was the place to make a new contribution since there were not only jobs in Information Science (finding a tenure-track position in education is difficult) but I could position myself as someone who could teach in either field, widening job possibilities. I took full advantage of the free courses and loaded up on education classes since I’d already taken nearly every library course the department had to offer.

But then my world crashed again. Wisconsin’s public universities had generous funds…too generous, and unfortunately that meant a sizeable cutback. The department couldn’t afford to carry someone like me, who was “weird” and I could feel people pressuring my advisor to get me to change me or to get rid of me. I had been recruited because I was told that I could blaze my own trail, but in reality, they wanted me to blaze the trail they wanted me to blaze. I had no idea. I also had no idea that my working from home, instead of in the office, MEANT SOMETHING. The kinds of conferences I was speaking at, professional ones, where I could speak to teachers and librarians directly about serving conservative tweens and teens or neurodiversity, because I believed future professors should make a difference, were “wrong,” but they both funded my attendance and praised me for getting selected.

And my publication (the online version in School Library Journal (not a journal, by the way, just a trade publication, but I knew that going into it) where I was invited to produce a piece for the website that was so good they ran it in the magazine and paid me did not impress them (though they congratulated me anyway). I knew it wasn’t as prestigious as a real journal (the kind where you beg to be accepted and not only don’t get paid, you might have to pay them to publish you), but I saw it as a stepping stone, and they read it as a sign that I wasn’t getting it.
For what it’s worth, said article became the fifth most popular article of 2015 for the SLJ Teen online version.

I both knew this and did not know this. When I was given praise for these accomplishments, I thought they meant it. In reality, they did not.

When Making Choices Closes Doors: How Qualitative Academic Fields May Bar Autistics

Since I knew they were gunning for me, I had two choices: to finish up despite them or to leave. I left, and then, after taking a semester off, came back, determined to finish since it was the fastest path to a Ph.D., and being Dr. Nicole was my dream. Unfortunately, while my advisor and I had good ideas for the dissertation, the step before the dissertation consisted of writing three essays on topics of my choice. This sounds great, right? Not to an Autistic.

It used to be that prelims were questions posed by the professors and they’d give you a reading list. You could go beyond the list, but you at least had an idea where they wanted you to go. Alternatively, they skip prelims and go straight to the dissertation. These paths are still more typical in quantitative fields like science and math and these “old school” paths to the Ph.D. explain why Temple Grandin has a Ph.D.  In the social sciences, we are more qualitative, so everything is open-ended. This sounds great for someone who thinks differently, but it’s actually not. See, they weren’t really essays of my choice; rather, they were essays that had political implications. My advisor didn’t want me to be embarrassed in front of anyone, so she’d shoot down topic after topic and proposal after proposal so that when I reached the committee, I’d pass. She’d try to turn my interests into topics, but the topics just didn’t work for me, and I’d end up striking off on my own, in areas that, as a student of Information Science, I wasn’t allowed to go. No, no I can’t be interested in disability. No, literacy has to be narrowed down to the area that impacts librarians only, and so on. The trouble with academics is they are supposed to pick a place to dig DEEPLY and pick three places that are often roughly connected and to ignore everything else. The Autistic brain makes connections that Neurotypicals don’t anticipate and, to be fair, we often fail to lay a path. We’ll happily go back and lay the path for you if you’d like, but instead, those pathways are considered tangents in academia. I left again rather than risk failing the prelims.

Since leaving the program, I’ve noticed another pattern: I am no longer a “friend” of my advisor, and never really was.  In public Academia, your job as a student is to help enhance the name of your professor through your own brilliance.  Once she realized I wasn’t going to do that, she stopped supporting me, leaving me to feel abandoned.  In Catholic higher ed, it was different, and I can write e-mails or call or even Facebook previous professors to chat about professional issues I’m experiencing.  The relationship was far different in Catholic higher education, and considerably more supportive.

Neurodiverse People Need Specialty Coaching

The simple fact is that modern academia and workplaces, much like our contemporary, test-centered school environment, is difficult for Neurodiverse individuals because of the social expectations that have been ramped up over the years. It is not enough to be fantastic at what you do; rather, you must be able to market yourself and to make connections to other people. You must be able to multitask and work both independently and as a member of a team. And you must not only know where the box is, but you must be able to fit inside of it at least some of the time.

Had I had a group to help me to sort out the political implications of my areas of interest and my behaviors which could be misinterpreted, I would have more readily been able to navigate the challenge of the prelim or decided on a different program, where I could have more readily charted my course. Autistics of my generation (and earlier) want to share what we learned in our lives so that others don’t have to work as hard as we did. In addition, we also hope to welcome neurotypicals with passionate interests in fields so that they can learn about how we think, and we can “pick their brains” about social strategies. It’s a lot of work to guess at why neurotypicals do what they do, so we can save brainpower by just asking and they can not have to guess at the Neurodiverse mindset, which will make them a valuable asset in the work world as well.

Add to that what happens if we’re Autistic and female or a person of color or from an otherwise marginalized family or group?  If these were my experiences having been a “successful student” in academia, imagine someone blazing his or her own path with no family history of higher education at all.

Since I published this, I’ve entered an Ed.D. program, and find myself regularly challenged by working with my public school peers (it’s rare for Catholic principals to bother pursuing the Ed.D. or a Ph.D. since there is no financial incentive to do so), but it’s a collaborative program full of discussion of practical issues alongside theoretical ones.  It works better for me.

Unfortunately, at times, it is too easy for me.  I am bored by the way the program breaks down academic research to make sure everyone “gets it.”  I understand the value of this, however, because for people who might be the first in their families to pursue higher education, this excessive (in my eyes) time explaining things might be the difference between someone’s success and someone’s failure.

But by deciding on this program, where weaving theory and practice together is encouraged, I will never be able to teach at an upper tier university.

However, because I’m Autistic in education, and not in fields where being Autistic may be acceptable, it doesn’t matter because I would never have received an offer to teach at an upper tier university in the first place even if I had finished the Ph.D.

That, in the end, is a great injustice.  I’m happy where I ended up, back working with students who need me, but to be barred from a path because of my disability, a disability I didn’t know I even had at the time, is jarring to my privileged white, middle class self.  I feel like I ought to have been able to do better.

But then I remember, I’m not alone in this, and I thank Lydia X. Z. Brown for reminding me how privileged I am to have been able to fail from such a high level.  Others have not been given the opportunity to get as far as I did.  Even if the end result is the same, I was privileged to earn that scholarship to a Ph.D. program, even if I couldn’t make the right use of it.  How many others deserved the chance to get that far, and didn’t get it?

One Brief Word about Microaggressions

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on the term microaggression, those “little things” that add up.  Little comments that are racist, sexist, ableist, etc. that we’re all supposed to just accept to continue in our programs that are like tiny daggers cutting one at every turn.

I know of at least one American Indian, Neurodivergent, yet allistic friend who was a colleague.  She was pushed out of my Catholic university due to persistent microaggressions and actual threats from a new professor-administrator who has shown herself to be racist, classist, and ableist.  I wish this professor would go back to the state university that trained her, and I still feel frustrated that a certain professor who IS an ally did not do anything to protect my friend.

I know, therefore, that Catholic academe isn’t perfect.  But until that professor came and took over the department chair position, my friend was happy.  My friend didn’t change; the department chair did.  I hope that my friend’s experience is unique and that someday this professor-administrator will look back and realize how much her microaggressions hurt me (I had a lot of ableist, sizeist comments thrown my way, too) and hurt my friend and I hope the administration will realize what it allowed to happen.

That these things happened less often in my experience gives me hope.  But that this still happens in a “better” place concerns me greatly.


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