Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

What Do Psychiatrically Disabled Faculty Owe Our Students?

Full full 06092014 disclosure

In the weeks since I’ve (albeit only vaguely) disclosed my own psychiatric disability in this series of columns, I’ve received many emails from people seeking my guidance with their own challenges with disabilities in the workplace. I’ve tried to answer every one. I feel the strong pull of moral duty—to let people who have reached out to me (usually in secret) know that they are not alone, that someone is looking out for them, even from afar. Sometimes there’s not much I can do, but I can answer the emails. I have to.

Many of these people wouldn’t be emailing me if they had anyone else to turn to.

Some of you know that “have to” feeling. Students and junior faculty come to you for mentoring, even though you are not technically their adviser, because they have nowhere else to go, or because they believe that you—and perhaps only you—could possibly understand what they are going through. Those hours of unpaid, underappreciated mentoring service are what I call “bonus” work.

Research has confirmed what many women and professors of color already knew: We spend more time doing bonus work in the academy than our white, male counterparts. I’m talking about the unpaid advising work that certain members of the academy are expected to perform because of who they are. But the problem is, that service doesn’t count for much, if anything, when it comes time for promotion, raises, retention, hiring, or (if one is so lucky) tenure.

For example, women spend more time on mentoring. Students are more likely to approach a female faculty member for advice—especially when they are in emotional distress—because, statistically speaking, students perceive female faculty members to be more nurturing.

Students of color turn to faculty of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds because these students tend to find a sympathetic ear to the unique challenges that they face. Yet mentors of color can be rare. Therefore, in fields where there are few women and people of color—of the nearly 70 faculty members in my department, only two are African-American women—the bonus work of mentoring becomes an even heavier burden.

If we say yes to every student who comes through our office doors, we necessarily have less time for our own work. If we say no to them, then students—and, surprisingly (or not?), our colleagues—consider us selfish. Plus, we might think we’re selfish.

That double-bind has been well documented. Debra A. Harley, a professor at the University of Kentucky, titled her research on the heavy service burden borne by black women faculty at predominantly white institutions “Maids of Academe.” The American Association of University Professors has a name for the “service gap” that holds women back from achieving higher levels of professional success in academe: the “Ivory Ceiling.”

Katie Hogan, a professor of English at Rutgers University, has some great recommendations for women and professors of color on “managing” our “service duties,” which include refusing to “idealize service” and keeping a “service log.” Another solution is for all of us to recognize that mentoring is hard work that can be hired—and paid for—outside of an academic department, as Kerry Ann Rockquemore has observed.

Until the service gap is closed, it will remain a problem for all underrepresented faculty (who will be sought as mentors) and junior faculty and students (who will need mentors) in the academy.

The Disability Service Gap

Professors with disabilities are underrepresented in the academy, in part because they often have “concerns about how they may be perceived as a consequence of disclosing a disability,” and therefore choose not to disclose.

Some professors believe faculty should disclose their own disabilities in order to better help students with disabilities. Linda Kornasky, a professor of English at Angelo State University, has an invisible disability—unilateral hearing impairment—and she has urged academics with invisible disabilities (more than once) to “come out” to their students and colleagues. She writes that there are “unique benefits [to] students with disabilities” if they can have “mentors with disabilities.”

I am not here to dispute Kornasky’s claim. She describes the occasion when she first told a class about her disability. After class, a student came to her and disclosed his own hearing disability—and then asked to be Kornasky’s advisee. Indeed, she writes, “In the decade after that first disclosure, dozens of students, some with hearing impairments and others with a range of visible and invisible disabilities, have followed this young man, confidently informing me that they too are disabled and seeking me out for mentoring.” I’m glad her students had a mentor who they could relate to. And I’m glad that Kornasky felt energized enough to do this bonus work.

But in a world where bonus work remains underpaid and underrecognized, should we be advocating that professors—especially contingent ones, who are already underpaid and underrecognized—take on this bonus work for free?

Mentoring with a Psychiatric Disability

The question of who should do bonus work grows even more complex when we’re talking about professors with psychiatric disabilities mentoring students with the same.

Brian Clarke, a professor at the Charlotte School of Law, insists that faculty must “come out” with their psychiatric disabilities because students “need to see that suffering from depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder will not curse them for all time and destroy their lives. ... They need us to be brave and be honest.”

If a professor takes Kornasky’s and Clarke’s advice and decides to disclose an invisible psychiatric disability, not only must the professor contend with potential stigma and ableism, but also with a new challenge: the bonus work of being the go-to person on campus for students with psychiatric disabilities.

As Kornasky described, students with disabilities will often seek a mentor who understands the challenges of living with similar disabilities. Ruth C. White, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California, described just this phenomenon to me when I interviewed her. White is, in her words, an “immigrant black woman who identifies with the queer community.” After she began her career as a professor, she publicly disclosed her bipolar disorder. Although she was concerned that students would question her “competence,” the opposite came to pass. In her student evaluations, she told me, “I get positive feedback about my ‘normalization’ of mental illness.” Furthermore, she has taken on a mentoring role for students with psychiatric disabilities who “feel safe to come to [her] when they are having a hard time.”

When Drexel law professor Lisa McElroy first disclosed her anxiety disorder on Slate, she told me she spent three days straight answering emails from students and other people across the country who had similar disabilities. She has spent countless hours since then mentoring people who had no one else to turn to.

Like McElroy, I, too, work in a law school. Estimates put law students at a particularly high risk for depression and anxiety (around 40% according to one study). As far as I know, no faculty members in my department are open about their psychiatric disabilities, but chances are, there are others besides me who have them. One thing I am certain about: when students come to you suffering with a psychiatric disability, and you have experienced a similar kind of suffering, it is really hard to turn them away.

Even as I write this column, I fear that students and others reading it will now hesitate to come to me out of fear of being a bother. The last thing I want is to discourage people from seeking my help.

So here’s the deal: Students and junior faculty with psychiatric disabilities need mentoring. But those of us who do this bonus mentoring work get taxed for doing it. For everyone’s sake, this bonus work tax is a structural problem that administrators who possess far more power than I do must fix.

We want to help yet too often we end up paying a price. In the words of Jay Dolmage, a professor of disability studies at the University of Waterloo, the bonus work is “an obligation, a trap, an honour, a burden, a ‘gift,’ and on and on.”

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