Drawing on social justice and critical pedagogy, Kat Higgins argues against a broader scepticism towards mental health-related accommodations in HE where they are often viewed as a get-out clause
To be almost constantly surrounded by people who share your overarching social values and political ideals is one of the pleasures and perils of life in academia. While we’ve all seen the PSAs decrying the risks of ideological insularity – a danger, it is usually implied, to which only those on the left are vulnerable – I confess that I’m still quick to defend (and fortify) my echo-chambers both professional and personal. The years I spent working as a waitress and enduring work-weeks filled with customer chit-chat about how feminism has ‘gone too far’ or how social welfare is for ‘lazy people’ has made me cynical of the suggestion that I’m now somehow underexposed to these so-called alternative worldviews.
I don’t deny that the bubble exists, but it’s cosy in here, and I like it. The extent of my insulation, however, is revealed in those rare moments of ideological cataclysm when a particular value or belief that I had hitherto so thoroughly taken as given is unexpectedly challenged from within the bubble itself. One such moment occurred a couple of months ago during a conversation with a group of colleagues about student mental health and the question of academic accommodations.
First, my own position: the consensus position of the bubble or so I thought. I have never been sceptical or hesitant about granting extensions or offering other possible accommodations for students who have asked for them, including when such accommodations have been sought for reasons related to mental health. Why should I be? It has always seemed like common sense to me to trust my students’ assessments of their own needs (they’re adults after all), and to take seriously the growing crisis of mental health amongst students enrolled in higher education. From a pedagogical perspective, I’ve also never seen any reason to resist making accommodations – particularly given that many students who struggle with mental wellbeing have official inclusion plans (IPs), which set out in detail the accommodations that they need, and to which they are formally entitled, in support of their learning.
The colleagues I spoke with, however, did not share my view. What I encountered, over the course of our conversation, was a significant degree of distrust on the part of these early-career teachers towards students who sought extensions on coursework for reasons related to their mental health, and an underlying cynicism (frustration, even) towards the notion of academic accommodations in general. “Depression is not dyslexia,” they said, “and even if it were, no one’s going to make accommodations for them out there.” “Out there” of course, being the job market to which our students will be delivered after the spoon-feeding, hand-holding joyride that my colleagues seemed to fear higher education was in danger of becoming.
my intention ... is … to shed light on a broader scepticism towards mental health-related accommodations in the neoliberal meritocratic University, which, I believe has implications for critical pedagogy
The exact nature of my colleagues’ objection warrants a little breaking down, as my intention in writing this blog is not to just complain about the comments of a few individuals, but rather to shed light on a broader scepticism towards mental health-related accommodations in the neoliberal meritocratic university, which, I believe has implications for critical pedagogy. First, it was suggested during the course of our debate that students who claim an accommodation (let’s use an extension on an essay as our example) are securing an unfair advantage over their peers who did not request an extension and must still submit their essay on-time. Second, there was, (as noted above), some concern that in granting extensions for ‘every little thing’ we are, at best, failing to adequately prepare students for the harsh realities of employment, and at worst, potentially ‘overselling’ students with mental health struggles as candidates to future employers via inflated grades that belie their actual competence.
Underlying both of these core objections is a fundamental claim about justice – or rather, the potential for injustice in handing out extensions willy-nilly – that relies upon a neoliberal understanding of merit and an unapologetically market-oriented outlook on the purpose of higher education. The risk pathway implied above can be traced as follows: extensions and accommodations are granted to undeserving students, which results in students winning undeserved grades, which enables some students to secure undeserved advantages in the labour market after graduation … perhaps to the eventual detriment of an (undeserving) future employer.
The meritocracy cheated here is fundamentally neoliberal, in that it fully individualises responsibility for academic performance on a blank student subject, unaccountable for its structural privileges and unburdened by structural constraints. Not only does such an understanding of merit falsely confuse mental wellbeing with worthiness, it reduces students to units of labour power, which we as teachers are responsible not for supporting and developing, but rather merely for correctly categorising, as if on an assembly line, into First, Second, and Third upon exit from the university. After all, if we could take for granted that learning were the primary objective of higher education, what would it matter if it took one student three weeks to learn what their peers were able to learn in two, or if one student managed to write a distinction-level essay, when they might have only achieved a merit (or fail) with less time?
such an understanding of merit falsely confuse(s) mental wellbeing with worthiness, it reduces students to units of labour power, which we as teachers are responsible not for supporting and developing, but rather merely for correctly categorising, as if on an assembly line, into First, Second, and Third upon exit from the university
Ironically, what is missing from the arguments against mental health-related accommodations detailed above is an understanding of how such accommodations might support justice in higher education. The notion that a level playing field can be created through such accommodations should of course be challenged. As I’ve suggested above, such a notion side-steps structural disadvantage and is far more invested in making sure future employers get what they pay for than in supporting an emancipatory and inclusive learning environment. But offering accommodations in support of mental health and wellbeing has the potential to facilitate continued learning and engagement for students who are struggling at no expense to the learning of their peers. On what grounds, then, can such accommodations be labelled unfair without relying on the neoliberal cornerstones of merit, resilience, and free competition?
I have found the question of justice to be largely absent in debates about whether teachers should adjust their practices (both pedagogical and administrative) to support the mental health and emotional wellbeing of their students – most notably among those who decry such moves. For example, Lukianoff and Haidt’s much revered and much reviled diatribe in The Atlantic against the use of trigger warnings in university classrooms, claims that such warnings coddle students by shielding them from unpleasant or uncomfortable ideas, hindering the productive learning (even healing) potential of shock and discomfort in the process. What I feel this line of argument, echoed more recently by Sequeira, fails to fully interrogate is who experiences this acute discomfort (usually, students living with anxiety or trauma), and thus, it is for them that the trigger warning is intended as a mental health accommodation strategy. It also falsely, cynically, and unhelpfully correlates mental health struggles with sensitivity, and in doing so closes down consideration of possible alternative, critical pedagogies of discomfort, which don’t unevenly burden students struggling with mental health and/or structural oppression.
efforts to ensure that students with declared and undeclared mental health struggles, and experiences of structural violence and oppression are subjected to no more pain or discomfort than their classmates should ... be commended as emancipatory teaching practice, not dismissed as coddling
Again, there is a neoliberal ideology of individual resilience at the core of Lukianoff and Haidt’s argument, as well as the aforementioned scepticism towards student claims about mental health and insistence that students be moulded to fit the demands of a dehumanising labour market, rather than the other way around. These authors are correct in insisting that shock and pain avoidance are fruitless and undesirable endeavours in education and in life. However, efforts to ensure that students with declared and undeclared mental health struggles and experiences of structural violence and oppression (connected as the two often are) are subjected to no more pain or discomfort than their classmates should, in my view, be commended as emancipatory teaching practice, not dismissed as coddling.
Ultimately, however, I’m just a humble graduate teaching assistant, and the question of merit and mental health intersects my pedagogical practice more often in banal acts of administrative judgement – extensions granted, absences marked as ‘explained’ – than in larger questions about whether or not to expose my students to distressing content. I have put concentrated effort into building strong relationships with my students and have been fortunate enough to secure their trust as a result – they tend to tell me when things are going wrong, when they’re feeling burnt out, when they don’t feel like they’re coping, when they need a couple of extra days. Despite the scepticism of some of my colleagues, this is a trust I intend to continue to repay.
Note: A version of this post first appeared on 26 March 2019 on the Contemporary Issues in Teaching and Learning Blog, part of the PGCertHE programme at the LSE.
Disclaimer: This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
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