- Low-Spoon Teaching:Labor, Gender, and Self-Accommodation in Academia
As professors, we too have disabilities. Our graduate degrees do not fix our dyslexia or cure our lupus or protect our loved ones from harm. Something happens, however, in the gap between our students and ourselves where understanding, empathy, and accommodation evaporate in the face of our own self-expectations. Self-accommodation is an intensely important and woefully overlooked academic practice, especially for women. Because educating is inherently replete with emotional labor, educators must self-accommodate for illness, disability, and fatigue in order to be maximally effective. When we are not taking care of ourselves, we are not presenting our best selves to our students. Self-accommodation is not a simple exercise, though, because it is directly at odds with America's culture of ruthless self-reliance and "toughing it out," with women's perceptions of self-worth being tied to usefulness, with expectations of female availability, and with our own (often founded) fears of appearing "weak" or less capable than male colleagues.
In this article, we begin with our personal stories and then provide concrete advice about how to seek and implement self-accommodation strategies and plan for what we call "low-spoon teaching." Our concept of low-spoon teaching draws from Christine Miserandino's "The Spoon Theory," in which she employs everyday objects—spoons—to metaphorically describe life with an invisible disability that causes varying levels of daily pain and energy; in her theory, each spoon represents a unit of energy.1 Low-spoon teaching, then, is teaching with few units of energy and planning ahead for low-energy days by building a classroom culture of collaboration, flexibility, and adaptation. We connect these strategies and the details of our stories to the larger contexts of gender, labor, dis/ability, and institutional expectations for women in academia. Though we acknowledge that we are both personally afforded many privileges, being cisgendered, white, employed full-time, and in committed partnerships, our hope is that these practices can be helpful even to those with less supportive institutions and communities. [End Page 173]
On 5 May 2016, at the age of thirty-six, my spine stopped working. A birth defect combined with the repetitive stress of reading, grading, and typing for almost twenty years culminated in the too-narrow spaces within my C2-C4 vertebrae sliding shut. What followed were months of paralysis, helplessness, and the most excruciating pain of my life.
It happened, fortunately, on the last day of the semester, so I spent the summer having surgery and starting the grueling process of recovery. As the summer came to an end, it was clear that I had to start making the kinds of accommodations for myself that I had been making for my students for years. Still in a hard neck brace and unable to drive, I worked with my department chair to switch out three of my five on-ground classes with online classes, limiting my painful forty-five minute commute from five times a week to two. Riding along with coworkers got me there when I could not safely drive. I also acquired a drafting table from the art department for my office, which made it possible to grade without hunching over and restarting the process that had shifted my bones in the first place. A higher desk for my computer and a more stable chair also helped. These perfectly reasonable accommodations were relatively easy to procure, but I had to be willing to ask. I had to overcome the fear of being viewed as a bother, difficult, or a whiner and advocate for myself the same way I would advocate for a student. As a result, I was able to keep working in a way that was effective and minimally disruptive.
Once the brace came off, I found myself suddenly in the realm of those with invisible disabilities, whose varying pain and energy are difficult to track, much less explain. The spinal pain was still present, and I will have to be careful with my body for the rest of my life, but the visual cue of the brace...