Here’s what our (and probably your) university should do about disability during the pandemic

Proposed immediate solutions for faculty and staff:

Allow people to decide for themselves how to teach or do their jobs while the pandemic continues. This may include online or hybrid solutions.

This disburdens multiple levels of administration. It places a slightly greater burden on Teaching and Learning Services, but only to support the level of blended pedagogy that they did prior to the pandemic.

Someone will abuse the policy; but is this really a problem?

Proposed immediate solutions for high-risk students:

Record classes.

Use existing equipment to provide a simultaneous broadcast of a live class over Zoom.

Slightly higher burden on faculty and Teaching and Learning Services, but not compared with last year.

This may not work for all majors, programs, or courses.

Long term suggestions to avoid this problem in the future:

  1. People with disabilities should be represented at all levels of administration where decisions that affect them are concerned—especially upper administration.  This is especially important in crisis management.
  2. The university create an action plan to address its ongoing ableism.
  3. This action plan should include an approach that normalizes and de-medicalizes accommodations.
  4. The university should make choices around software and equipment with the understanding that no one solution will be accessible to everyone: flexibility is essential.
  5. The university should hire an Academic Lead and Advisor on implementing the plan, just as we have with the anti-Black racism plan.

Some background:

* Disability is a category of political and cultural belonging and not necessarily something that inheres in the individual.[1]  Environments and institutions are disabling.[2]

* Disabled and chronically ill people, and people who care for them, carry extra burdens.

* Among those burdens is the extra burden to “act as nondisabled as possible.” In a pandemic, this burden is potentially life-threatening.

* Disability may be visible or invisible. It may or may not be medically validated or tied to a clear diagnosis.

* People who may not identify with the categories of disabled or chronically ill may still be affected by ableism. People with disabilities and people with chronic illnesses may not identify with one another. Some groups like Deaf or Autistic people, may object to the label of disabled for themselves, but may act as if they have common cause with people who do identify as disabled or chronically ill; they may also be subject to similar institutional obstacles.

[1]                This is debated in the field of disability studies, but it’s a decent working condition. No scholars in the field believe in a “medical model” where disability is simply a problem of the individual. 

[2]                This is almost universally agreed upon and the relevant point from an administrative point of view.

What is a sick day?

The first rule of everything: never get cocky. Within a few days of my announcement that everything was stable with The Drugs and The Cancer, I developed an upset stomach. Like very upset, like I couldn’t digest much of anything. Also very painful cramps. And it kept going. I’m used to that happening every so often for a few days. That’s “normal.” But it just…kept…going.

There’s the normal exhaustion that goes with something like the stomach flu, except it won’t quit, and I’m on The Drugs which already make me fatigued, and the drugs I take for the riots happening in my lower intestine also make me tired. We are now approaching the three week mark. After some experimentation with prophylactic doses of Imodium over the weekend, today I am feeling like “me” for the first time in awhile. Not that I’d say everything is ok yet. I am slowly introducing things to my diet again and may even have a salad — a salad!!!! — with dinner tonight, to see what happens.

I actually googled “Imodium vs Lomotil” at one point to see if I should maybe make a switch (I can’t wait to see what kinds of ads I get served!). What I learned is that both are, at their heart, synthetic opiates. Which explains why I hate Imodium so much. Opiates make my head fuzzy, and I am a cheap date on drugs.

This also lead to a very fucked up work September for me. I am behind on almost everything except for my undergrad class, which I prioritized because it’s like a very large vehicle that doesn’t make sudden turns; and letters of recommendation, because deadlines aren’t going to wait for me. I am in a sense “lucky” to be working at home still since I doubt I would have been able to make it to campus some days where I taught or attended a meeting. I am definitionally lucky that I am teaching a course that is not a new prep. I’m also lucky that I have no urgent work deadlines coming up–a perk of having a book delayed at the printer.

And yet, it occurs to me that while I get disability leave as a benefit (complete with bureaucratic procedures and biocertification), there is no such thing as a sick day for profs, or in my case, sick weeks. Then again, last week things got really bad and I bailed on a bunch of meetings and appointments, as well as some meetups with friends and band practice (#FOMO, or perhaps #DOMO), so I guess I sort of made my own, which is certainly a privilege of the position. But the flip side of the independence that most faculty enjoy is the dependence that seems to come with it. We are solely responsible for an awful lot of things. I confess that I am not a good judge of when or how to say I am “out sick,” vs when I am “in sick.” [Insert line here from Deleuze and Guattari about the machine only working because it breaks down.]

Aaaand, some good news

The latest cancer update is that after this week’s CT scan, everything is steady and controlled, which is how it’s been for awhile. Sometimes I wonder if I should even keep doing these updates unless something goes south.

Here’s where we are at.

I’m on a kind of oral chemotherapy called a TKI. It works to stop the “innumerable” nodules in my lungs from growing. My twice-annual CT scan showed minimal growth, once again. The tumour marker in my bloods is barely there, which is also good. But the drugs won’t make the mets go away. There is no cure. So I’m in this weird situation where I can never be in remission from metastatic cancer, but I am also “under control.” This is difficult to explain to people and difficult for some to accept. “But you’re in remission, right?” No. Maybe someday that will change, but I don’t spend any energy on that possibility.

The TKIs come with a suite of side effects. The main ones for me are: fatigue, pretty much constant pain and skin peeling on my hands and feet; elevated blood pressure that can be controlled by BP meds; they also wreak havoc on my digestive system which can lead to nausea, or diarrhea, and a slowed digestion; I am frequently and easily dehydrated; I am told I am “allergic to the sun”; I get dizzy and my balance is shit; I am immunosuppressed, which is not a good thing to be in a global pandemic. Occasionally other weird stuff shows up and then goes away. When some new symptom appears, I sort of step back and assess it and don’t immediately start worrying. For instance, I once got a migraine–I’m thankful that it was only once, but also because now I understand a little more of what my friends with migraines and cluster headaches go through.

All of it is manageable but it essentially means I am disabled because of the treatment for a chronic illness. But to me it’s also normal now. Susan Wendell and Ellen Samuels both have profound things to say about this state of being in the world.

This is how it’s been for over a year now. It’s more or less how it is.

I do complain about all the side effects–last night I slept 10 hours and woke up tired and immediately complained to Carrie. But I’m also basically ok with it as long as I get to complain. I still like living and I mostly like my life.* It also helps to be married to someone who has lived with a chronic illness since 18 months (type I diabetes)–I have a good role model.

My health goals for this fall are simple: in a situation where faculty mental health is the worst I’ve ever seen it (and I mean everywhere), I am going to look after my own.** That’s #1. I will try to be kind to people. I also think it’s time to find a new physical discipline–maybe meditation, maybe yoga for fat people, maybe some kind of weight work for my legs to help with balance. And to break up my workday with more 15 minute breaks, when I can run an exercise on my touch guitar, or do something “in” my body.

*Would I rather not be living in a global pandemic? Yes, I would rather not be living in a global pandemic. I would like to see my friends more and to be able to teach in person and maybe travel once in awhile. Would I rather not have spent about 20 hours last week going to the Jewish, getting tests, waiting to see people, commuting? Yes, I would rather not have had to do that.

**I had been meaning to write about this mental health crisis, possibly for a periodical rather than in this space. But then all of the schools decided to enact sociopathic back-to-school policies for high risk faculty and students, so that’s been on my mind but apart from my first ever tweet storm I have been doing behind the scenes things there.

A Simple Guide to Hybrid Classes for Teachers

This is a guide to setting up audio and video for hybrid courses, especially seminars. This based on some research I did this summer: I asked friends who have genuine expertise in the area, and with my partner Carrie Rentschler and our friend and colleague Darin Barney, we ran some audio experiments with Darin on the other end a Zoom call. I am posting the results here, but I want to emphasize that although I have run blended seminars in the past, I haven’t run one on Zoom and am not teaching on campus this term. However, I do plan to use this method for my working group.

What is a hybrid class:

The nomenclature is confusing, so this is what I mean: a class where some people are in the same room, and some people are connected remotely, like through Zoom or WebEx or some other software.

In some contexts, people refer to this kind of class as “HyFlex” and use “Hybrid” to mean multiple classes connected via digital link. I’m using “hybrid” because most academics don’t know the term “HyFlex” and I want this to show up on search engines.

Why run a hybrid class:

Let’s say you’re teaching in a pandemic and some of your students are high risk. Or you’re high risk and you’d rather have your classroom less crowded. Or your students have disabilities that make getting to campus more difficult. Or they can’t get into the country. Or.. or.. or..

Running hybrid classrooms is both a technical and a logistical skill:

You need to have a technical system that works, but you also need to think about how you will facilitate.

The most important thing is sound:

I am not saying this because I “do sound studies.” I am saying this because if students can’t hear one another, or you, it’s not going to work, no matter how well they can see what’s going on. This is the number one thing I learned when co-teaching with Emily Dolan across two campuses and two countries.


The simplest technical method:

Everyone brings a device to class and logs into Zoom. Assuming the classroom has a basic A/V setup and wi-fi to handle it (not all do!), plug into it and project the remote participants on the screen. Every member of the class is logged in on their device. When you call on them, they unmute, and presto, they have a microphone in front of them. The teacher also needs to watch the Zoom feed to catch when remote people raise their hands. Make sure transcription is enabled. (I hear tell that Teams and Google Meet have better automatic transcription; Teams, however, does not work well with external hardware as in the scenario below).

ONE THING: Feedback can be a problem. It helps for everyone to go into their Zoom audio settings and have echo cancellation enabled. It’s also important that everyone except the person speaker has their microphone turned off. If you get a weird echoing sound welling up in the room, have everyone mute their mic.

Zoom audio settings showing the “echo cancellation” option enabled. People should not need to enable “original sound” in the meeting unless they are streaming music.

ANOTHER ISSUE: not all classrooms at McGill have good wi-fi. Everyone being online at once can be glitchy. In this case, the first step is for people in the room to turn off their cameras, and have the prof’s camera aimed at the class, and then have people turn on their cameras to speak.

A slightly more complicated technical method:

For this method, you will need a USB microphone. I recommend the Blue Yeti because it has the two features you need: an option for an omnidirectional pickup pattern (check the manual — many USB mics only pick up sound in one direction), and it is mounted on a stand that absorbs some shock. But any USB mic with those features will do. You’ll also want a long USB cable.

The Blue Yeti Nano microphone sits on a stand

Back of the Blue Yeti Nano microphone. There is a big button in the middle and two choices for patterns. The circle on the right is what you want. The other pattern is heart shaped and called “cardioid” (cardio, get it?) and only picks up sound in front of the mic.

Plug the mic into the computer and place it at the centre of the seminar table. Use your computer to project the remote participants on the screen. You’ll need to watch for raised hands. The mic will pick up the sound of the room.

Issues: if you use a mic that doesn’t have a stand of some sort, any vibrations on the table will be VERY LOUD — eg, putting down a coffee cup, typing. If the room is very boomy or echo-y this may not work work, but we tried it out in our apartment. We also tried a pair of mics, and thought that a single source was better.

Logistics and Pedagogical Considerations:

You have to be more thoughtful about turn-taking; I keep a speaker’s list and call on people in order. I always have students end what they’re saying with “and that’s my question” or “and that’s my thought” so we know they’re done. People can’t just jump in.

You also have to check in with the remote people regularly to keep them engaged, and to make sure they can hear–conditions can change. It’s hard for people to keep piping up to say “could you please repeat what you just said” and “I can’t hear you.”

I also got some good advice from people with more experience than I do, which I am reproducing here.

From Cathy Davidson, who thinks a lot about these sorts of things:

(1) Shared agenda that everyone either contributes to or signs off on;
(2) written notice on the agenda if someone will be available only hybrid;
(3) roll calls and check ins that include the names of the persons onscreen so they respond;
(4) written name for each point discussed so person onscreen either contributes or verbally, publicly says they have nothing to add;
(5) everyone is visible somewhere, in the room or on the screen. For privacy, if someone doesn’t want to be “seen” on the screen they come up with an avatar or image or icon but something distinctively there. Also, they are addressed and answer in the chat. Silence is not contribution. The “cost” of not being in the room is having to verbally be present to the room, even if it is to say repeatedly, “nothing to add.” Otherwise, people get lost. Also a number of active, engaged inventory exercises–TPS, entry, exit tickets, for both f2f and online, inc some pairings b etween a f2f person and an online person in the “pair” part of the Think Pair Share …. (Now, are we always perfect at doing this? Nope. But we try.)

From my friend Jane:

We did hybrid meetings at work all the time before mandatory work from home. Suggestions are: 

* have either one large screen or multiple smaller screens so that folks at home can see who is talking in the room
* summarize questions before answering them so folks at home and in the room know what has been asked
* pay attention to the background noise level in the room; it can easily drown out the speaker 
* make space for folks at home to ask questions; don’t expect them to yell over the folks in the room
* if at all possible, have someone monitor the chat and share questions/comments from there (may not be possible in a classroom, I know)
* occasionally check in with the folks at home throughout the meeting to make sure they’re not having any difficulties hearing, seeing what you’re sharing, etc. Don’t just do it at the beginning and then assume all is okay (cf background noise)
* if at all possible, don’t whiteboard. If you have to whiteboard, set up the camera so that it shows what is on the board and don’t write in tiny letters

Those were our main learnings. We’ve been doing it so long that it’s pretty much ingrained at this point.

What about lecture courses?

If you’re doing a hybrid lecture course, I’d recommend always recording it. If it’s mostly you talking, you could have your laptop at the front of the room with you, the mic on to pick you up (even if you’re also using a mic for the room), and the people from outside class again up on the screen. If you’re using slide ware (powerpoint, keynote, etc) then present through Zoom and everyone gets to see it.

If you run it more dialogically, like I prefer to, this is more complicated.

The first thing is, even when students aren’t wearing procedural masks, I always repeat questions in lecture if students aren’t amplified, because not everyone can hear everyone. This also solves the problem in Zoom. You could also employ some of the techniques Cathy and Jane discussed above.

The simplest technological scenario. You could have people log into Zoom and unmute themselves as in the seminar scenario above.

You could, if you had the resources, set up a mic in the middle of the room and see if it picks people up. Or people could walk up to the mic to ask a question, though this will discourage participation, especially if your classrooms are like ours where people would have to climb over rows.

If you have a teaching assistant, you could have them run the Zoom session and powerpoint on their computer (or use a remote to change slides) and then they can focus on making sure students on Zoom get called on if they have questions.

Other Ideas?

If you have had other kinds of success, that don’t involve expensive tools, then drop me a line and I’ll add them here.

A Former Chair on The Chair

First, the best thing I’ve read on The Chair is Karen Tongson’s piece. Go read it now if you haven’t.

We finished The Chair last night and since every academic in my social media feed has a take, here are my hot takes. No spoilers.

1. I still think the most interesting campus drama would be written from the perspective of graduate students and part-time faculty. The in-built possibilities for drama, narrative arcs, and backstory are great. I also think they, as well as the university staff, are the people whose stories most need to be told right now.

2. That said, it’s nice to see professors represented as human beings on TV. I probably enjoyed that fact more than the story itself. For me, Dear White People was probably more entertaining even though it got pretty silly by the end.

3. It doesn’t depart too much from the standard formats of campus drama and workplace dramedy. I did like some of the subtle backstories for characters. TV is pretty much the only format where character development interests me at all. There were some nice, small touches that could have been much more developed in a longer series, especially in terms of Jie-Yoon Kim’s family, as well as her career. They probably tried to pack in too much. Yaz MacKay is sadly underdeveloped and felt more like a foil for the other characters.

4. I am not any more concerned about the realism of the show than I am what lawyers have to say about The Good Fight. I have been on campuses that look like that; mine doesn’t. American TV is where working and middle class families live in multi-million dollar homes; anyone expecting different hasn’t watched much American TV. The cancel culture narrative is cheesy and easy but then so is every other one on TV (and in the press, for that matter).

5. As to what department chairs actually do, a reality show about different juggling challenges would probably be the closest TV could get. It’s middle management: a lot of responsibility, very little power.

Mixed Pfeelings on the Pfizer Shot

So today I got the first Pfizer shot, and an appointment for the second one on my birthday in August. I’ll take it as a present. When I learned I was eligible Monday and called to make an appointment, it occasioned an actual adrenaline hit to my system. This morning, I woke up like a kid on Christmas and bounded out of bed (actually I didn’t as Tako came up for some petting as I was getting up), and it’s been a very happy day. I am profoundly grateful to all the people involved in the long chain that got the vaccine into my arm, including the many staff at the Jewish General that made getting a shot fast and easy, and the nurses who came out of retirement to guide and handle the process. I’m even grateful to the bureaucrats who are overseeing a process in Quebec where we do not yet have enough vaccines.

But at the same time, I must conpfess to some mixed pfeelings.

For one, Carrie is not yet eligible despite being my caregiver and a type 1 diabetic. I brought her with me to the Jewish General on the hope that there would be spare vaccines and that we could sneak her in as my caregiver, but there was no luck (though it was still a rare outing for us, so it wasn’t all bad). We were told that sometimes there are extras at the end of the day, around 7:30 or 8pm. Montreal currently has an 8pm curfew and the Jewish is about 30 minutes away by car. We both knew it was a long shot, and also believe in prioritizing the people who most need limited resources in a pandemic, so we’re not outraged, but it would have been nice to both get vaccinated today.

For another, I got lucky to even learn I was eligible. The Quebec government’s messaging about who, under 55 or 60 (depending on where you live) is actually eligible changes multiple times a day. By the end of last week I was convinced that unless I was actually hospitalized, I was ineligible. Thanks to a couple friends, I found out on Monday, and called oncology, and they had appointments that day. But I had to defer as I had to go off my cancer meds for 3 days before getting the shot. So today was the day.

And pfinally (sorry/not sorry), we have to understand how much better things could be if things were just slightly different. I’m all for compensating people for the labour involved in getting the vaccine developed, tested and distributed. But after that, I don’t see why intellectual property rights (which remember, is nothing more than a temporary trade monopoly) for something as essential as a pandemic vaccine should be allowed or respected. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. States, including Canada, dismantled their pandemic warning and preparation systems as a cost-cutting measure, despite SARS being a recent memory and despite the epidemiology being quite clear on what to do. Decades ago the Canadian government sold off our domestic vaccine production capacity to a private company, which then eventually closed it down because it wasn’t profitable. All of these decisions were the effects of prioritizing money over human life.

In other words, it’s a pretty great day for me and for everyone else who went through the vaccine centre at the Jewish. But multiple things can be true. Today, and last week, and last month, and the month before that, could have been equally great for many more people. Remember the toll of unnecessary suffering from Covid next time you hear someone talk about efficiency or intellectual property as inherent organizational, social, or economic goods.