In discussing my experience with diversity and equity, I first acknowledge that my life has been considerably privileged. As a Caucasian male with a school teacher for a father, I can’t pretend that I don’t experience certain advantages. That being said, I have had considerable experience working with disadvantaged populations through my religious service and in experiencing some inequities myself due to a neurodevelopmental mental disorder that went undiagnosed until I came to graduate school. In pursuing a career in rhetoric and composition, my experiences in these areas have shaped my academic identity as one of my goals has been to strive to understand and improve the material conditions of underprivileged communities.
Through service in various positions in my church, I have come into contact with and become intimately associated with many individuals whom I might not otherwise have met. The most striking example perhaps is the two years I spent living in Guayaquil, Ecuador and its surrounding areas as a Mormon missionary. During these two years I came to know and grow close to many individuals whose circumstances were a considerable contrast from the standard of living common to United States citizens. Among those whom I met were a man who, for economic and family reasons, had illegally immigrated to the USA twice and was planning a third trip despite dire warnings from US immigration officials; a middle-aged widow supporting her two adult children and one grandchild on her own, making ends meet by laundering and ironing neighbors’ clothes; a man whose one room, bamboo shack of a home washed away when the river rose, leaving him, his partner and their 3 month old child homeless; as well as countless others. As I came to know and serve these people over two years, my understanding, love, and respect for them, their situations, and their strength grew immeasurably. While my various academic pursuits have not centered on issues of concern to Latin American populations, this experience as a missionary has directed the focus of my research to understanding how and and why boundaries between communities of all sorts exist, if/to what extent those boundaries are important, and how rhetoric and composition theory and instruction can help build bridges across and between those boundaries. Additionally because of this experience, when I encounter students and other individuals from varying kinds of difficult circumstances -- international students facing culture barriers, English language learners, first generation college students, individuals with various health and mental concerns, etc. -- I am better able to empathize with their situations and struggles.
My ability to empathize with individuals from difficult life circumstances has also grown through my own experience dealing with problems stemming from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Throughout my life I have been labeled a “disruptive influence” in school, church, at home and in most any situation where it might be expected that you sit quietly. In high school I was voted “class clown,” despite graduating with good grades and being my high school's "Sterling Scholar" in science and being named one of the top 15 science students in the state. I always struggled to pay close attention to anything and to “work hard” at tasks that weren’t intrinsically engaging. Because of this, I was often referred to, either explicitly or implicitly, as lazy, unmotivated, and irresponsible by family members, friends, teachers, and, frankly, myself. I managed to make it through college and into grad school, at which time the difficulty with focusing and working diligently became overwhelming and I sought help from the psychological counseling center on campus. In receiving official diagnosis of ADHD, I have found considerable support and I have learned mechanisms for both dealing more consciously with the difficulties intrinsic in the disorder as well as leaning on and playing to the strengths that come from it. In learning these skills that have helped my life, they've also affected the way I teach in many ways.
In any course that I teach, I make a point of creating an open and accessible classroom, letting my students know my own struggles as a way of indirectly giving them permission to struggle themselves. This, I've been told by several students, enables them to not feel as alone and motivates them to actually seek help, whether from me or other sources. While I've had several students who come to class with letters of accommodation for various issues, I’ve also had multiple students without institutionally acknowledged issues express appreciation for my efforts to make space for cognitive difficulties, whether officially diagnosed or not. In one freshman composition course I had a student who struggled with various mental health difficulties, and on top of his letter outlining accommodations I was required to provide, he decided that he needed to come to my office hours every week. He would discuss with me the composition and other work strategies that had and had not worked for him over the previous week and make plans for the week to come. I would push him to consider specific concerns and possible alternatives (often framing things in terms of my struggles and what works for me), but ultimately he made his own plans and decisions. Over the course of the first half of the semester, I saw considerable progress. Unfortunately, the student stopped coming to office hours and eventually stopped coming to class. After missing over a month of class, he came on the day of final presentations and handed me a thank you card. In it he explained that he knew he had missed too much to pass the class, but he wanted to thank me for allowing him to explore avenues of working and writing that were unique to him, rather than just telling him what to do. Six months later I received an email from this student, informing me that he would be retaking the class and that he hoped to register for my section.
This struggle to find ways of succeeding and of creating a classroom space that allows students to do the same has led me to my current research into neurodiversity, universal design of learning, and university accommodations. This work has highlighted for me ways in which the university system doesn’t facilitate the success of individuals such as myself, when it might. In pursuing this line of work and finding ways of achieving my own version of success, I have encountered obstacles. For example, a previous mentor asked if I was “getting fixed,” implying that I was broken and needed to get this “taken care of” if I wanted to get a job. Additionally, I’ve had fellow graduate students in casual conversation kindly imply that ADHD isn’t real and that it’s an excuse for being unproductive. The lack of visibility for this, and other neurological “disabilities” makes this kind of dismissal easy, but it also drives me to continue this work.
The key point for me in considering issues of diversity and equity is making space for and recognizing the unique strength and contributions of individual differences. This is my goal in my teaching, research, and personal connections with students, peers, and all individuals with whom I interact.