September 25, 2019
“It was as straightforward as figuring out—and then removing—all of the obstacles to student success, as well as showing each student that you care and that he or she belongs on campus.” — Justin Snider, on Professor David Laude’s approach to increasing graduation rates for all students.
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Gabriel Arana, a gay writer and editor, discusses how the field of queer studies has evolved over the past couple of decades. Queer studies used to be a stigmatized, highly theoretical niche. Now, more and more universities across the country are offering majors and minors in queer studies. Instead of just focusing on theorists like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, “queer studies is actually trying to catch up with what’s going on in popular culture,” according to Omise'eke Tinsley, a queer studies scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.
One problem, though, is that most universities no longer fund standalone queer studies departments. Instead, queer studies scholars get slotted into more traditional academic departments “with a rotating roster of visiting professors.” The result? Queer studies no longer has access to funding from alumni, and “can leave queer academics marginalized within their departments.”
While it’s wonderful that queer studies is rising in popularity, it’s a shame to see universities less invested in it as a field. As renowned LGBTQ+ scholar Jonathan Katz says, “The cost of housing queer studies within other departments is that it returns queer studies to the kindness of strangers.”
The aforementioned issue points to a cross-industry problem. Organizations often make structural changes without first consulting those who will face the most impact. If your department or organization is planning to restructure, how can you prevent marginalized employees and students from suffering as a result?
A recent study explores Kansas school disability programs in the ’70s, which were broken up into three tiers. LD1 kept students with learning disabilities in the classroom with other students. LD2 pulled students out of class for services. And LD3 gave students their own separate classrooms. LD1 was considered the most desirable because it offered more support, exposed students to the standard curriculum, and was less stigmatized. A key finding is that LD1 consisted of mostly white students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. LD3, by contrast, had mostly Black students.
The study reports on the effect of the court order that required the integration of the programs. White families used their influence to “redefine the terms of categorization.” As Black students moved up to LD1, white families began moving their children down to LD3. They also moved program funding with them. Through coordinated effort, parents were able to manipulate testing practices to artificially deflate former-LD1 student scores. That way, when they moved to LD3 and scores jumped (thanks to the migrated funding), LD3 was characterized as the most effective of the tiers.
This story illustrates how those with privilege get to define the structures we adhere to in school and in the workplace. It reminds us to always look for patterns of exclusion, even if categories and labels seem objective. Who benefits and who is excluded from this presumed objectivity?
Professor Thomas Skrtic explains that the “categorical manipulation” demonstrated by the white families “can happen in any bureaucratic context where people are labeled.” Can you think of any processes you manage that label people or sort them into categories unrelated to their actual abilities or potential? Is it possible that those with more privilege and influence have or could manipulate these processes?
Twenty students with autism who are enrolled at Exceptional Minds, a professional film training organization, will take part in a mentoring program with Cartoon Network. Cartoon Network is well known for shows like “Teen Titans” and “The Powerpuff Girls.” While the students already have training in “animation, visual effects, digital design and post-production,” the mentoring program will also offer them access to “expert advice from industry professionals.” This advice can boost their chances of making it in such a competitive industry.
In 2017, only 14% of adults with autism had access to paid employment outside of disability facilities. The Exceptional Minds program has the potential to create a bigger job pipeline for adults with autism. The mentees will increase representation of people with autism in the media. And they will also bring their unique vision to Cartoon Network’s shows.
What would a mentoring program for adults with autism look like at your organization? What advocacy organizations could help? How could you allocate resources to benefit mentees? How could autistic perspectives inform the work your team produces?