Category Archives: Academia and Dis/Ability

To learn or not to learn? Choices in academia

“The capacity to learn is a gift; The ability to learn is a skill; The
willingness to learn is a choice.” Brian Herbert, House Harkonnen

I write this blog post on the assumption that academics have a capacity to learn. Regardless of what they are like in private, they have proven that they are capable of learning. They have also proven an extraordinary ability to learn, so they are gifted and able people. What about their willingness to continue to learn though? If the willingness to learn is a choice then what does an unwillingness to learn stand for? What does it mean when a capable and skilled academic elects not to learn from unfamiliar situations or incidents?

I have come to ask myself lately why the past four years of my life have been a steep learning curve for myself but not anyone else I used to know in academia. While there may have been a modicum of learning on the part of a handful of people I still consider my friends,  I cannot possibly claim to be the beneficiary of wisdom or insights on the part of people in whose lives I used to play a professional role. It is not unfair to them to state the fact that friendship and professional relationships have fallen by the wayside of my chronic illness. I would like to add that while ill all my life with a debilitating illness, I was fortunate enough to suffer only a  mild form; but my health deteriorated dramatically in 2011, which fundamentally changed my life. I was now physically absent from the workplace as I could no longer move my body. Little did I know about the consequences of my physical absence. Almost mysteriously, my body had been a guarantor for proper work; my conceptualised existence on the other hand became something different altogether.

I have a wish and desire to understand why this is so, and there is no shortage of obvious, reasonable explanations: people get on with their lives, they are (frantically) busy, academics chase deadlines constantly, they teach, they research, they network and they have far too many administrative tasks on their plates. I am no fool who does not understand the logistics of life and the pragmatic choices people, myself included, make. But I cannot help asking myself what I would have done if it had been me that kept on climbing the career ladder or that would have stayed in the rather cushy position I had already reached, and a vivacious, entertaining, collaborative-minded colleague had vanished from seminar rooms, faculty meetings, semi-formal dinner parties in honour of a visiting scholar, lecture halls, special committee meetings, ordinary staff meetings and workshops. I wonder what I would have felt if I had walked past the office of a formerly active member of faculty with whom I had shared laughs, with whom I had taken walks to clear our heads during lunch breaks, with whom I had given joint presentations at conferences, sat on several committees with and travelled to a number of conferences together over the years? How much would I care, how much would I thought I should care? I do not know the answer. Of course like everyone else in the position of the outcast it would be easy to say that I would care a great deal and that I would do things completely differently; it is easy to live under the illusion that I would be A Better Person, but that is not certain at all, it is mere speculation. Life can be tough on everyone, what looks like privilege to me from my perspective may well be someone else’s humdrum hell from which they wish to escape. Or not. Maybe they are living their dream and their dream happens not to translate into a sliver of an interest in me and my life. I say, fair enough.

Still, something undeniably rankles and chafes. On closer examination, I realise it is the very unwillingness to learn that I cannot reconcile myself with. Not only are we academics, whose very business it is or ought to be to learn (admittedly, mine may be an outdated, romantic or even sentimental notion of academia first and foremost as a place of learning) but as education researchers we owe it to ourselves, our colleagues and students to listen. In my academic discipline, education research, reams of books on the significance of listening, the prerequisites of learning, the necessity of inclusionary pedagogies, the superiority of pedagogical leadership, the tenets of continuing professional development, self-reflexive practice, self-critical examination to be better researchers and practitioners have been written. Some of these books and papers are very good, others smack of self-congratulatory smugness. I have tried my utmost to stay in touch with academia, in particular with my education researcher colleagues. I have turned to those who I thought would be particularly interested in or even excellent at listening and learning. For four years, through excruciating physical pain, frustrating encounters with healthcare professionals, days, weeks and months of crushing loneliness, I have remained self-motivated. Time and again I have dusted myself off after another fall, professional or personal, and carried on. The intellectual input, the encouraging pat on the shoulder, real or symbolic, that we all need sometimes to feel reassured of our place in the world have been absent from my life for these past four years, a time that has been the darkest in my entire life, and I say this as someone who had cancer in her teenage years and who lost her best friend at age fifteen. I say this as someone who has had plenty of darkness in her life prior to those four years; they were by no means the first bump in the road of an otherwise privileged middle class life.

The sensation of chafing may well stem from the fact that I did reach out. I did not hide, instead I spoke up for myself and soon I spoke up for other sufferers, too, because I discovered a whole new world of pain, a level of suffering and neglect I had no idea existed. To my academic friends and colleagues, I did wave my pathetically weak arms to signal that they could continue to reckon with me, rely on me but that I could no longer do my work in splendid, academic isolation. Housebound as I had become, in order to keep on publishing I would now need to co-author, something that is often desirable anyway in my discipline. In order to participate in conferences, I would need to be given a wheelchair, a carer who is willing to push me around and a sound-proof room near the main venue. Or, alternately, I would need to be able to participate online. On the few occasions I did participate in staff or research meetings, the loudspeakers did not work, Adobe Connect would not connect, Skype crackled so much it triggered a nasty bout of migraine. On more than one occasion, I sat staring at a dark screen because I had been forgotten altogether. It had taken me two hours to get out of bed, get dressed, put my face on, nervous happiness spreading through my ill body while thinking, I may be ill but I am still going strong. With some goodwill, there should be plenty of opportunities for me to continue participating in what matters most to me.

I suggest that the unwillingness to learn on the part of my academic colleagues and friends means that I am being robbed of something that matters a lot to me, namely to derive meaning from education contexts, learning, collaborative actions, and discussions on how to render educational settings more accessible and student-oriented while at the same time challenging them intellectually. I derive meaning from being part of that. Lately, I have been made to understand by a number of colleagues, that not only are they unwilling to learn but that I have become an inconvenience, possibly because I make comments from an obscure position in the margins. I have had to learn that not only is their unwillingness to learn about my particular position (which has a lot to offer because I can speak out about student achievement and departmental politics where tenured academics clam up for fear of being subjected to sometimes rather nasty measures) but that it quickly results in worse, for instance ‘othering’ when what I do or say doesn’t suit; and now that I am a suspicious obscure other, it is easy to get rid of me. If former allies and friends do not listen and even less learn, they effectively let others, far less friendly, even disability-denying administrators into the picture who do not shrink from portraying me incorrectly. Contemptuous undertones have begun to sneak into emails.

As I mentioned initially, the above is merely my perspective but it is a perspective containing salient points as regards listening and learning. It is also well worth thinking about what an unwillingness to learn can and will do to people who are dependent on others’ learning capacity. I love my work and my academic field, there is still so much I want to do, yet chronic illness and the response of many fellow academics to my new situation has left me isolated and disempowered, when some small consideration and empathy would have enabled me to continue a fulfilling and useful role in society. This is the case for many other chronically ill people, too, I am far from being unique. On a lighter note, I cannot wait to see what I will do next, once I have dusted myself off after the most recent fall.

©Claudia Gillberg for Uttingwolffspouts