Lessons of Self-preservation and Survival: Cripping Teaching
By Shayda Kafai
There are many different ways to teach, but not all of these ways sustain our body-minds. Most of the ways we are taught to teach (the ways we are told we should teach) don’t sustain crip folks. I know this. I started teaching when I was 21, five years after I was diagnosed with manic-depression. I have taught consistently at a Cal State since 2014. It took me many years to realize that I did not have to teach in the same way that everyone else did. In fact, if I did that, it would compromise my health. The following list are things that I have learned by trial and error, crip-friendly strategies for teaching and surviving an institution that tries, with all its might, to swallow us whole.
Schedule Breaks: Whether you teach on the quarter or semester system, work in a week (or a few days) of open days in your syllabus, days without content. These are days that you will call on when you are low on spoons,[i] when you are exhausted, when you fill in the blank. These will be magic days, days that will keep you going. If you don’t need these breaks, no problem. You can always fill it with content.
Group Work/Presentations: Group work is glorious. It is a constructive and pedagogical tool you can use to empower your students as they shift from the role of learner to educator. It also gives you a break from having to perform (teaching is performance. Just as it is something I love, it is something that exhausts).
Unplug: If you are empathic like me, you will feel everything. You will check in on your students, you will hear their stories, their traumas, and their struggles. You will need to take a break. Schedule 15 minutes between office hour sessions, between office hours and teaching, or wherever you can to unplug. For me that means a watching Grey’s Anatomy and sipping coffee. Whatever it means for you, figure out what works and work it in. You deserve it and it will sustain you.
Speakers/Screenings: As a way to help you stay balanced and as a way to give you the opportunity to take a break, schedule speakers or screen movies/documentaries/T.V. shows. They will add dimension to your classes and they will give you time to breathe. Schedule these strategically around midterms or in-between back-to-back lectures. They will help you save your spoons.
Fuck It: As instructors we are taught to be there for our students, to be present on committees, to collaborate with our colleagues. We are rarely ever told to be present for ourselves. Not taking care of my body affected my health and compromised my immune system. I didn’t drink water. I didn’t eat when I was hungry simply because I was in class. Fuck it. Eat your snacks or your meal in class while you teach. Remember to hydrate. Stretch between classes. Bring your emotional support animal to class. Remember to go to the bathroom even if it’s during class (I have gotten so many UTIs from not doing this).
Permission: This is one of the biggest strategies that no one tells you about. It is something that you will think you don’t deserve, something that you will think you can do without. It took me many years to realize that I am worthy of this. If you need a scheduled day off, it’s okay. Take it. If you need to cancel office hours to rest, sleep, reground yourself after an anxiety attack, meditate through pain, it’s okay. If you need to finish class sooner because of your brain fog, do it. The institution does not support body-minds of color, queer body-minds, let alone crip ones. We are not supposed to exist and yet, as instructors we enter into this space having to navigate the reality of our body-minds. Full disclosure, I often forget about permission. Why? Because ableism, because insecurity, because of the mandates of capitalist productivity. Be gentle with yourselves. It’s okay to forget and to remember once again.
The purpose of this list is to give you time. Our crip body-minds are not predictable. We can’t schedule depression, anxiety or extreme fatigue and body aches into our syllabi. We need strategies and this list is by no means complete. How do you crip teaching? What are the body-mind strategies you practice?
[i] Spoon theory was created by Christine Miserandino. You can read her seminal article here: https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/
—Shayda Kafai, Ph.D.
Dr. Shayda Kafai (she/her/hers) is a lecturer at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona’s Ethnic and Gender Studies Department. She earned her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from Claremont Graduate University. As a queer, disabled femme of color, she is committed to exploring the many ways we can reclaim our bodies from intersecting systems of oppression. Shayda is a disability activist-scholar and member of the Los Angeles Spoonie Collective. She lives in Los Angeles with her wife, Amy.
Check out her TEDx Talk here.